Tag Archives: school

Cicadas, Typhoons and Gord Downie

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This week’s Sunday Reader was going to be about summer ~ about ways to live the entire year as though it’s still summer. It was a sunny little piece and the closer I got to publishing time, the more I realized that I wasn’t going to send it.

Seasons have been on my mind.

In Japan the cicadas are screech-singing at full volume. {This is the sound they make ~ like a million baby buzzsaws in training}. Recently a friend who’s lived in Japan for almost a decade said he finds the sound of the cicadas comforting. Me too. The arrival of the cicada-song in June signals the beginning of summer, a throwing off of order and routine. A loosening of strict rules. An expansion of spirit.

Mid-August in Yokohama is oppressively hot. Saturday was 28 degrees Celsius but the Weather Network reported that it felt like 43 degrees. The gap between what it was and how it felt is hard to wrap ones head around. I spend most of August in light cotton and slow motion.

Our school year is about to begin. The teachers have been back at work for a week but it always feels strange to be at school without kids. It’s not really a school without them. They are the essential ingredient… with their tans and their back-to-school hair cuts and their great yops of laughter and their insecurities and their epic curiosity. I’ll be so happy to see them tomorrow; to arrange my working life around the wild trajectory of their growing up and becoming.

On Sunday morning DP and I, still in our jammies, livestreamed The Tragically Hip’s final concert from Kingston, the city where we we went to university and where we met 22 years ago. The Tragically Hip are for Canadians like I imagine Bruce Springsteen is for Americans. Gord Downie, The Hip’s lead singer, is our unofficial Poet Laureate; I read that 40 per cent of Canadians say that they learned more Canadian history from Tragically Hip songs than they did in school.

Gord Downie is dying. He’s battling glioblastoma, an incurable and aggressive form of brain cancer. On Saturday night (Sunday morning in Japan), all across the world, Canadians gathered in living rooms and bars and on beaches and in town squares to say good-bye. To wish him God-speed on his journey. To say thank you for all his shimmering words. We also gathered to remember our own youth… to celebrate the nights The Hip played on the cd player while we danced and fell more deeply in love with our boyfriend, with our entire group of friends, with life itself.

In their song Ahead by a Century, Gord sings:
First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life.

No dress rehearsal. This is our life.

Tropical Storm Mindulle spent the night barreling across the Pacific towards us in Yokohama and Tokyo. It’s not personal ~ this is what typhoons do. It’s not helpful to expect a typhoon to act differently than typhoons act. Yesterday afternoon, as it became clear that we were in the typhoon’s path, we bought several days’ worth of groceries: eggs, bread, veggies, fruit. Sensible storm-groceries. It was after 11 o’clock last night when I realised that I’d forgotten to buy milk; there wasn’t another person on the sidewalk or another customer in the convenience store. Typhoons are a beautiful and devastating reminder that humans are not in charge.

As I write this, the typhoon is assembling itself from sideways rain and sea water and hot wind and it’s blowing itself onto the land like a greedy monster, all reaching and pulling. Soon, it will announce itself through the rattling of the glass doors to our balcony and the sound the screened doors will make as they slide and bang back and forth in their tracks. From our 22nd floor apartment, we’ll watch the typhoon like a production. Extreme Weather Opera.

Last night, Mount Fuji was astonishing; perhaps she was getting ready for her date with the storm. We haven’t seen her clearly in a couple of months but last night she emerged majestic in blue-grey and the sun set orange and purple, all in awe around her.

The Japanese staff at our school tell us that Autumn will arrive on the 23rd of September… that the heat will break that day. They are always right. A cool wind will blow in off the Pacific and we will dig out our sweaters and jeans. Summer will slip away, storing itself inside some bright pocket at the back of our mind.

Everything has its own season. School. Summer. Typhoons. They come and then they go. We get ourselves into trouble when we hold too tight to things whose season is over… when we try to keep that which needs to go.

Part of living fully is learning to let go.

Is there something you need to let go?

Do you know what’s stopping you?


P.S. This was first published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.



The plant lasted a week.

{not the drink
The Global Issues Network}
wanted our school to be greener,
with plants.
They emailed the teachers
and offered a choice:
I looked up the plants on the Internet
(as one does when free plants are offered)
and the hyacinth
seemed easiest
to keep alive.
That’s the sum of my criteria
where plants are concerned.

Hyacinth is also the name
of my partner’s fierce-wonderful 
She’s 94.

The plant arrived while I was out
of my office.
Planted in a white plastic pot
with a little sign
that said “Hyacinth”
along with instructions
for watering.

Our first two days
were fine.
One might even say boring.

Then my colleague
who works in the adjoining office
noticed small bugs
orbiting the plant.
She hunted them down,
pressing their grey-black bodies
into small squares
in the wallpaper.

She said: “It’s an infestation!”

I said: “I’m Canadian
and until you’ve seen
blackflies in August,
you can’t talk about infestation.”

She said: “My day
has been filled
with tiny murders.”

The next day
was one of peace.
Either she’d killed all the bugs
or some,
the wise survivor-bugs,
had moved on
to safer plants
and classrooms.

in a riotous act of purple-beauty
Hyacinth bloomed.

Her corner of the office
was heavy with tropical daydreams.
She whispered the names of warm places
that end with an i.

The following morning
a colleague couldn’t enter my office.
Allergies stopped him
red-eyed and sneezing
at the door.

Later that day
my friend with the adjoining office

We had to send Hyacinth away
to live with another teacher.

I want to say that we took time
to mark this transition,
that we sent her away
with sad hearts
and words of advice.
We didn’t. We sent an email.

I’m starting to think that schools
are tricky places for plants.

Maybe I should have asked for a tulip.

What the world whispered

You are not your resume.

We were talking
with Grade 11 students
about documenting their lives
for college applications
“Don’t sign up for extra-curriculars
because they will help
get you into college.
Do them because this is your life.
Your life
doesn’t start when you graduate
from high school
or college
or some other day marked
with the wearing of long dresses
and/or funny hats
and the drinking of champagne.
This is your life.
And now.
And now.”

Sometimes the muse
moves through you
like a freight train
and utters
these things.
(Let her.)

At at an assembly,
the former
Student Council President
said to his peers,
“It’s only awkward
if you make it awkward.”
Then he laughed.
I hugged him later
to thank him
for those words.

A friend told me a story
about his young son
riding his bike
down the stairs
inside the house.
He told his son
how proud of him
he feels.
When the boy asked why
(the way that boys do),
my friend
gave examples from his son’s life.
What my friend
is really proud of
is that his son is
taking risks.
That he is really alive.
Shouldn’t this be
what all parents
want for their children?

On the way home
from school,
the foreigners’ cemetery
glowed golden
with late afternoon sun.
whispered the cemetery.

the story of japan and me

{Photo by Jacquie Pender}

Wednesday afternoon,
after climbing 100 bite-sized
(and unexpected) steps
I arrived
red-faced and breathless
at a neighbouring
Yokohama school.
The signs were all in Japanese
and I needed some help
finding the room
for my meeting
and the Counselor
who was expecting me.

The students,
all girls,
moved swan-like
through the school grounds
in pairs and trios.
Holding hands,
they floated slightly above the ground
like characters in a Chagall painting.
Dressed in light blue
cotton dresses
and straw hats,
they channeled
Anne of Green Gables.
Cuteness personified.
Not one of them
spoke English.

The littlest girls
Perhaps they’d never seen a woman
so pink
or so round.

The older girls shushed them…
and then came closer
forming a wonderful ring
of curiosity
around me.
They smiled
and waited.
I repeated the name
of the Counselor
I was meeting.

A bouquet of girls
ran for their teacher
who appeared,
smiling shyly.
She didn’t speak English
but motioned for me
to follow.

At the the main office
four administrators
emerged like toys tumbling
out of a closet.
We all bowed.
And then we bowed again.

I pronounced the name of their school.
It was a statement,
not a question.
They looked at each other
with widening eyes.
Solemnly they shook their heads.
I was at the wrong school!

I started to laugh
and then everyone laughed
and we bowed and laughed

an administrator walked me
outside and pointed
across the street
to the school
where I was expected.

“I’m very sorry”
I said.

“Please do not be sorry.
It is no problem.”
she replied.

This is the story
of Japan and me.
and grace
and forgiveness.)

the walk home

i’d like to take a moment
to remember
how often the sweetest
in life
are also the simplest.

it had been raining hard
all afternoon
and when the bell rang
the kids went running
from the building
with yells
and stolen umbrellas.

by the time i left school
the sun was pushing her blonde head
through steel grey clouds.
the concrete was still wet
and the sun bounced there
like hard red rubber balls
in a playground.

at the end of golden week
in japan
the bluff was filled
with tourists
admiring the city
from the cemetery.
(a strange but true vantage point.)
the late-afternoon sun
made their faces soft
and kind.

the world smelled new.

i walked home.

School + Facebook = ? (Coetail 1.4)

(Image source)

In Shaping Tech for the Classroom, Marc Prensky writes about “doing new things in new ways.” This concept is both incredibly simple and ridiculously complicated.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of new things in new ways a great deal since the EARCOS Weekend Workshop: The Networked Educator. During one of Chris Betcher‘s sessions at YIS on Monday 19 September, a colleague recommended a TED talk by Stefana Broadbent entitled How the Internet enables intimacy.

As a high school and undergraduate student, I never really questioned the underlying power structures at work within educational institutions. I followed the rules and did what I was told. This made me, of course, an ideal student for which I was rewarded with high grades. Ultimately, my willingness to play by the rules led to my wanting to become a teacher… and then I became one.

As a counselor working in international schools two decades later, I have developed a different perspective on school. I want the students in our school to be learners and athletes and artists and musicians and global citizens and community-builders; I see it as our responsibility to help them become the best (whole) person they can be. As a person who sometimes has a bad day, I believe it’s totally okay that students have bad days. I am also surprisingly okay with the idea of students spending a bit of their school day being social whether those interactions are in person (which students have always done) or via texting, Facebook or calling their mom or dad for a pep talk. Obviously, there would need to be some rules to help students make good decisions about their use of social networking technology; anyone who has ever worked with teenagers is nodding their head right now. But, ultimately, granting students more dignity and freedom with regards to responsible social networking at school seems like a very good goal for 21st century learning.

For me, that would constitute doing a new thing in a new way.

{P.S. I use Facebook at school every day to connect with the students with whom I have worked… and to connect those students to the students at YIS. Sometimes I even post an update.}