Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Necessity of Things Falling Apart: Bearing Witness

Twilight, In Beween (M.A. Reilly, 2014)
"Discourse, lives as it were, on the boundary between its own control and  another alien context" (Bakhtin, 1981, 284)

I was working with some teachers recently and one asked about a plan we had revised. Her exasperation was both statement and question. I sensed she was wondering whether this version of the plan would last the length of the school year.  Was it sturdy enough? Correct? 

Surely it was indelicate on my part, but I told her most likely this revision would fall apart too--perhaps as soon as 6 or 8 weeks.  She paused and then laughed and I was thankful for her sense of humor. And I thought--not for the first time--that I might have tried for better words. 

Most everything falls apart, especially plans made for others. Plans are less the road we actually make and more the breath we exhale as we pause, slightly, before breathing again and walking on. Nothing stands still and plans, written, are the epitome of such truth.

I wanted to tell her that our teaching plans will change because we will have some new thinking. They will change because we were wrong.  I wanted to say that the kids will show us that what we thought was essential has become less so.  I wanted to suggest that our work is not to follow made plans verbatim, but to read the landscape as learning emerges. Becoming, not being, is cool comfort in the face of doubt. I wanted to lay down words like breadcrumbs, beg the birds to stay away, but I offered her only silence and a nod. And perhaps each was the better utterance than words I might have sounded. 

The space to doubt is a gift. 


I was thinking about all of this as I waited in the doctor's examination room reading Bud Hunt's recent post, On Hope. Bud posits that it's hope he'll sidle up to in the wake of doubt--doubt that rises alongside made plans underway, plans that surely will begin to show their wear as plans do. 

I was thinking about the folks in Bud's story. He's involved in a 1:1 initiative where he works.  He writes:
And certainly some folks have begun to wonder about the bad and possibly risky pieces of our plan to allow for more access to technology and the Internet to students as everyday habits in teaching and learning.  I do hear some people who are certain that things and networks will be used for evil rather than good.  “Let’s lock stuff down,” they say, “because students with too much ability and opportunity are bound to go astray.”
Back in 2009, I rewrote board policy at a large NJ public high school to allow unrestricted Internet access for students. At that time, students were not allowed to use any Internet ready devices without facing disciplinary action. It was not unusual to see high school admins busy confiscating phones. "If I see your phone, it's mine" was well in play eating up copious amounts of time. Further, students at the high school and middle school were not allowed to bring their own devices to school without written permission.  And then they could not access the Internet.  We were locked down and safe.

It took some months to rally interest and support, but eventually support was garnered and the policy changes were enacted by the Board. Alongside these changes, we also were ensuring wireless environments at all district schools and updating hardware so that in the period of 15 months a 1:2 environment was present at the high school and eventually a 1:1 environment at the middle school.

As I think about what Bud wrote I am reminded that it is the in between spaces of what was and what might be that doubt most surely raises its head. I can recall the urgent voices that prophesized doom at both schools. "Only a fool would let 1500 kids access the Internet on whim," one high school teacher shouted at me. "Do you have any idea the problems this will cause?"

Sometimes, plans displace what we did not know we valued. Other times they nudge at beliefs about order and control that we aren't quite ready to part company with even when we profess the opposite. To be human is to know wear. I suspect it's one reason we love the new plan. So shiny, so full of possibility. Change often represents necessary losses and any loss is rarely comfortable. As I think about Bud and his dilemma I realize that it is what we reach to fill these losses, small and grand--personal and societal, that seem most to matter.  

Bud reaches for hope--the thing with feathers.


And so this was on my mind when my doctor, a family friend, stepped into the examination room. Rob had taught all three of his children and across the last 15 years our family and his have developed a friendship. His children are the type of young people who fill both Rob and me with hope--with the belief in a better world than the one we have now.  Dr. R. is Egyptian and deeply involved in the politics that are (re)framing his country. And so it was with much interest that I listened to him talk about continued turmoil there and how people are invested in magical-religious thinking as the basis for answers to small and large problems. He tells me with a certain sadness, "the book has been lost." 

The book has been lost.

Later, I'll think that the book may surely have been lost, perhaps even that the book needed to be lost, but stories less so. I'm reminded of John Connolly's (2006) wonder-filled book, The Book of Lost Things. The subject of the story, 12-year-old David, loses his mother. She dies. The narrator tells us:
Before she became ill, David’s mother would often tell him that stories were alive. They weren’t alive in the way that people were alive, or even dogs or cats...Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud...they had no real existence in our world....Stories wanted to be read, David’s mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life (p. 3).
Hope is a story we tell. It's the witness we bear when hearing another's tale. Hope is without past or future. It is emergence--a narrative sans beginning, middle or end. Hope may well be what we reach for during in between times.


After David's mother dies, he thinks about how still his life has become without the rushing to and from that had been such a part of his life while his mother was ill. 
Instead, there was only the kind of silence that comes when someone takes away a clock to be repaired and after a time you become aware of its absence because its gentle, reassuring tick is gone and you miss it so (p.13).
When things fall apart, the reassuring tick of what has been is gone. This is when we most need courage to face another person's uncertainty, as well as our own. Such acts are ones of hope.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981).  The Dialogic Imagination. Austin, TX: University of Texas.
Connolly, John (2006). The Book of Lost Things: A Novel. Atria Books. Kindle Edition.  

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