Monday, September 26, 2016

The Draw: a reflection on skiing

There she was. At 6.50 a.m she was still in the shade but the vivid blue sky gave hints of the day to come. Driving from the small rural community of Rataehi some 10km from the seasonal
play-town of Ohakune, I had stopped to photograph an abandonned house and the stunning Ratana church that reflected the morning sun. The day was going to be GORGEOUS!

This mountain was the Maunga of my childhood. Introduced by my dad and visited during my teenage years, the winter weekend jaunts punctuated my tediously boring school years; this is where I learnt to ski - this was Ruapehu.

To the uninitiated, skiing would seem a rich man's sport. Arguably at one point in time, skiing was considered an elite sport, beyond the reach of your average pleb and certainly not a sport your parents would happily fund unless you were fortunate enough to grow up near a mountain! The face of skiing has changed however.  When snowboarding arrived on the scene in the 90's, the skiing fraternity threw its hands up in horror. The purists were aghast that this modified skateboard of sorts, would be allowed on the pristine slopes to "mess it up". What snowboarding did however, was offer skiing the chance to pull its proverbial head out of its proverbial backside. Skiing needed to rid itself of it's elitist persona and embrace a shake-up. Borrowing from snowboard technology, skiing was redesigned.  The carving ski made an appearance which threw open the doors to a whole new "freer" type of skiing; in a sense, snowboarding saved skiing. Being one of the holy trilogy of board sports, snowboarding brought with it a whole new genre of snow sport enthusiast - a younger, grungier and ultimately poorer generation was hitting the slopes and this infected the skiing world profusely. The tight-legged, neatly packaged style of old-school skiing gave way to new ways of being on ski's which included adopting the "park style" of snowboarding, as well as big mountain skiing and just a "looser" style of skiing altogether. This new-school tricktionary got the thumbs up from younger skiers. The 'endless winter' as a lifestyle became popular again and the term "ski bum" proliferated, firmly cementing year-round employment in the snow sport industry as a legitimate career choice. I get that.
Today, as I drive up the mountain road I found myself stuck in the longest line of traffic out of Ohakune - all headed for my mountain on this perfect day. This to me, is the biggest hazard of commercial snow areas - the madness of heading to a hill where thousands of other like-minded individuals (is that an oxy-moron?) will also be. 

This was insanity. I do not enjoy the farmed-in nature of commercial mountains. I enjoy getting off the beaten track and being away from others and normally I would put skins on my ski's and walk the hills to avoid chairlifts and queues and the cost. Yes ... lift passes are not cheap which is one good reason to find employment in the industry if you cannot get enough of snow! Once you have your gear (which is no more expensive now than it was decades ago), the true expense does come in that golden ticket to ride, which is one good reason why I prefer to walk up the hill. Walking up the hill (or skinning) really enables me to connect with the mountain while I am sweating and breathing heavily towards the top! The ski down is over-whelmingly luxurious and I see it as another variation of being with my maunga. But this day I was going to ride the lifts.
As I stood in the long line waiting to get onto the chair, I couldn't help notice how happy people were. There is no space for negativity or aggression in this zone - people have a common knowing and way of being on the hill and as such it is a calm, almost zen-like atmosphere. But I wait in line wishing I had my skins...

Once on the chair there is an engulfing silence. It is a weird thing to be up there, dangling and suspended in a surreal world above the mountain.  This affords the opportunity to observe - to be the watcher.  Skiing is a very public pursuit; the style of skiing tells a story of how long one has skied - out there for all above to see. I wondered, do we know we are being watched and if we know are we suddenly aware of oneself in the act of being  a skier?

Here in this space above, I could plan my next run down the hill; I could take in the incredible beauty of this volcano; I could talk to others on the chair if I chose to; I could close my eyes and allow the gentle sway to lull me into a micro-nap and I could just watch. 

Skiing has an immediacy about it. The temporal nature allows us to both be the snow and to be aware of having just skied this or that bit of the snow. It is a strange juxtaposition. It is completely freeing, for there is little room for anything else apart from being  in that moment. It has a meditative quality to it.
As I reflect again on the atmosphere of calm amongst the people who dwell here in this mountain space for a fleeting part of their lives, I wonder if it is this way because we all speak the same language - we have a way of knowing and a way of being that transcends the normality of our daily life off this hill. 
As spring approaches and winter recedes, I know that being on this hill during a snow season is a sort of home-coming. For me it is about being close to my maunga. My Ruapehu. The snow clings perilously as if it might go forever - holding out against the warming spring sun and fighting fruitlessly against the urgency of new spring growth emerging from beneath. This is Ruapehu's time to renew - and we who long for the snows to stay a little longer, must wait, once more.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

One Year Later: Missing Nepal

I know my bags were not packed for Nepal weeks ahead in anticipation of the journey, because I had water filters and donated clothing to take, that to me were more important.  The trip was a form of giving - of myself and also the kindness of others. One year on and I long for that place again. It's the people, the feeling. It is not easy to explain, but I have that twitchiness back that reminds me of the woman in the movie "Chocolat". Some of you will know what I mean.

Yesterday my friend Narayani sent me photos taken of her planting rice in the fields below her village. She was sending them as they were taken.

 It struck me how here she was, up to her knees in a soggy rice field thousands of miles away in a third world country where a great proportion of the population live very close to the land and exist on very little. 
She was planting rice so she and her family could eat because that's what generations of her family have done before her - yet she was documenting this via phone to a person half way around the world.  
The monsoon season is upon them now and so it is vital to get crops planted. I miss the view of Nepali women head down with backsides hoisted in the air, as they pulled grass for their goats or harvested rice. 

I miss the old wrinkled women I would see lugging heavy overloaded cone-shaped baskets on their backs as they walked a well-worn path between field and house. 

Often their animals would be in their homes and they would need to bring food from the fields for the animals to eat. 

Every bit of usable land is used for food crop production - not for animals to graze upon!
I miss the laughing, mischievous kids with their big wide grins and brightly coloured clothing. 

I miss the way they could have hours of fun with an old bike tyre and a stick. I miss the colour and vibrancy of Nepal. I miss the way they conduct their business any time and place - just right there on the street in amongst the rubble and the dirt and the flies.

I miss the smell of Nepal; a mixture of rain, dirt, spice, smoke ... it's indescribable. I miss the warm, open hearts of the Nepali; people who would give you everything even when they have nothing.

When I go back (and I will), it will feel even more like home. Things will have changed I hope; the clean-up from the earthquake(s) will be noticeable and there will be more of an energy in the air that comes on the back of rising tourism. I will take my sunrise coffee and sit on a rooftop of a house in a small village overlooking Kathmandu and watch as pinks, oranges and purples dance on the tips of Ganesh Himal in the distance. I will watch as village men come to a tree that overlooks the city and perform Puja as the sun comes up; uttering their offerings as they circle it; all the while unaware of how completely beautiful they are. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

He Fell

IIt wasn't the falling that was the problem; it was when the falling stopped. That's when the friction set in. No elastic potential energy to reduce the shock - just a cold hard THUD. When he fell, you fell too. You felt it in your gut, but mostly you felt it in your heart. The impact tore it to shreds. You are not sure when it will fully recover because even though he has stopped his falling, you haven't. 
His face has lost the black bruised and beaten signs of trauma; and his eyes are no longer blood-stained and sad, but he hears no more from one young ear and his brain fights to locate his body in space like a worn out gyrocopter. It also struggles to think.
It wasnt the falling that was the issue - it was when he landed, you see. He perhaps should have just kept falling - and never landed; forever in that space between "where am I?" and "this isn't going to end well".  
Right then at that moment - that very moment of knowing, everything falls to a screaming, kinetic energy-filled halt. And just like that he is your 9 month old again, falling down a flight of stairs; grazing his face and knees for the first of many times as he negotiates his way into walking; screaming tears of pain as you bundle him up into your arms to kiss his wounds well again. You set him straight, back on his feet and off he toddles ... until the next time.
Landings are over-rated. Newton's Apple probably had no complaints, but when he fell, his head broke and his brain bled a bit in protest of the landing. If only there was no gravity - or maybe if earth had the gravity of the moon - maybe then the landing would have been permissible.
Maybe then you would not still be falling.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The raw emotion of teaching praxis

The other day in my classroom, I messed up. My year 10's were being collective twats and I told one kid he was a dick.  
This proclamation of course was instantly followed by a resounding "ooooohhhhhhhh Miss you are NOT allowed to call him a dick", to which I quickly replied "It is a man's name and a shortened version of Richard" (sorry all you Richard's out there).  None-the-less, "Dick" was no where near the words I FELT like using with this particular loud, hormonal, smart-arse 14 year-old pimply-faced twat of a kid ... someone's little darling.
I ended up in front of senior management having to explain my "slip of the tongue'.  Interestingly - the punishment for swearing at a teacher is not as severe.

Senior management decided that clearly my teaching practice needed scrutiny - otherwise I never would have used such a derogatory term. 

As a student teacher the word "pedagogy" was used liberally by  "Professional Practice" tutors. Attempting to say the word in a sentence without sounding as if I had Tourettes syndrome, let alone trying to understand its vague and obviously highly academic meaning, was more than enough for this little brain. Bugger the pedagogy - just teach me how to teach.  

Well ... the academics would argue; pedagogy IS after all the method and practice of teaching - in theory - so why then can the theory and applied practice feel so disjointed?

I would prefer to use a term often used in health care for reflective practice as one is engaged in the practice itself - praxis - a term first coined by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire
Praxis invites us to seek unity between theory and practice rather than doing the teaching then reflecting on it later.  It positions the learning as a conversation between the kids and the teacher, rather than as the teacher implementing plans which were hewed in the indeterminate context of  being "good in theory".

I would also argue that the "Teaching Philosophy" we were told to craft as student teachers to inform our teaching, has a place amongst praxis as it underpins our moral and intellectual purpose in teaching, however it must be fluid and dynamic, as well as being open to scrutiny. It is after all a theoretical framework which should reflect one's world view.  This in turn should influence the how in the classroom by shaping thinking, decision-making and day-to-day classroom management - although it is not something we would be turning to on a daily basis to ensure the "right track" is being taken.

This brings me back to Mr Dick. It was too late - the words tumbled from my mouth like a trophic cascade.  Here's the thing - students LEAP on any hint of a chink in your armour.  Furthermore we as teachers miss the point in all this and so does the teaching profession in general (to my thinking anyway). Teaching from your heart is an emotional roller-coaster if it is done with true authenticity. My outburst to Mr Dick was an example of just that. There is no theoretical dogma which can inform about the feel of teaching, the rawness of teaching and the way in which teachers attempt to hide behind laptops, white boards and traditional classroom power-mongering.  Kids want connection.
We forget, kids spend the better part of twelve years in school soaking up "education" for their futures and we expect them to sit down, shut up and learn something.  They want connection. They want to know we are human, that we feel and so they will push us, prod us, test us ... until they are satisfied that we DO feel.  More often than not this prodding, pushing and testing results in an outburst by both teacher and kids, or in kids being in some way being reprimanded via the school discipline system, and a teacher being branded by students as something I cannot repeat on this page. There will always be one shining star in every class who leads the rest towards this state of unrest but it is a perfect example of the tension that exists between theory and practice - well in theory this stuff should work but does it, and how do we know until we try it, and how do we try it without it looking like a classroom science experiment? 
My point exactly.  We can spout sonnets about pedagogy, but the true learning comes in the doing and being responsive in the moment - this is praxis.
If as teachers, we can lean away - momentarily - from our rigid idea of how a lesson should be; to opening ourselves up towards allowing connection with the kids, I argue the classroom could be very different.  But we don't mention this stuff in the staff rooms of most schools around the country - sure we moan about this or that kid but do we actually stop to think about emotion behind it all? I doubt it. We go home for respite and refuge, only to return the next day with our armour on once again - ready to do battle - walls up and around lest any kid seeks out or notices a weak spot.  The point is - let them in.  Let them know you are human.  Let them know what makes you tick; what excites you - your passions.  Kids will define you by the subject you teach, so you have to show then you are NOT that subject (unless of course it IS your life ....!); you need to connect with the kids throughout the duration of a lesson, in the myriad of ways that is open to us during our teaching, rather than shutting down every opportunity for connection for fear of the lesson plan not running as it should and we then are "off-script".  We must stop this constant over-thinking that now defines the teaching profession, which in my mind serves to further alienate us from the kids even more.  How can we expect these young folk to be resilient problem-solvers and creative thinkers, when anytime they express that desire in their natural haphazard hormonal teenage way, we stamp it out? We suppress ANY hint of deviation from "normal" and we do it to ourselves also as teachers!!
Teaching is not a screen-play for heavens sake, but it can be a damned good chance to play a crucial role in some pimply 14 year-old smart arse DICK'S life!

Friday, February 19, 2016

The art of hanging in there

It's been four weeks to the day since I squeezed the last of my belongings into the only remaining spare space in my car; turned for one last look at the wee old cottage I had loved for two years; and drove over 1200 kilometres to a new job and new life across the sea in the north island of New Zealand. 
Fear is a funny thing. We think of it as being tied to moments of danger, but in my case it was fear of standing in front of my fresh new year 9 students at the school I was about to start teaching at, in a subject area I did not know at all. THAT was fear. I sweated my way through the first ten days; cried all the way home most days after school and wondered repeatedly what the hell I was doing there.
Every morning I get up at 4.55am and am at school by 6 so that I can prep for the day. I need to learn my subject over and over so that when I deliver it, at the very least I am one step ahead of my students. It's a stressful way to stay on top and it feels like treading water on a daily basis. Add to this the manic rush that is life in a school ... so much that goes on behind the scenes to get the day going and running smoothly. 
Last week one student - aged 14 - told me "F.....K!" In response to being asked to sit in her allocated seat, whilst another student yelled "penis, penis, penis" just because he could. He also did this to another teacher in the school the following day. Why? I feel the grey hairs growing on a daily minute by minute basis.
One friend said "we don't do this for the pay or the holidays. We do this for the kids". Damned right we don't do this for the pay (if we manage to GET paid - I am currently in a battle with the infamous Novopay to get paid what I should be paid); indeed the holidays are awesome - but yep - DEFINITELY it's for the kids. For some of these kids we teachers are the only people who give them any hope.
This week I managed to only cry once and to not sweat my way through the day due to stress. I even had two or three days when I declared that I "loved" what I was doing. That was the day before the "F" word and the penis incident.  One day at a time.
Friday's are fabulous and the holidays are not far away really. The change of scene has been nice too even though I really struggled in the humid heat of the north island Coromandel area compared to the south Canterbury area. I don't do heat well. It's so important though to hold onto the things that make me me - my mountain biking; hiking .... the things that help me to hang in there ... watching the amazing sunsets.

Hanging in there is both an art. I feel now more than ever, the importance of hanging in there - the best is yet to come I am sure.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Anatomy of Change

Two major changes occurred in my life in December of 2015. The first was to be told I would more than likely lose my job in an organisational merger; the second was I was offered a NEW job - 1700 km away, teaching a subject I was not only never trained in but also knew very little about! A friend of mine told me "2016 will be a year of changes for you". How the heck did THEY know?!!
Even though one is mentally prepared for
taking on board such big changes, the reality is vastly different. The decision to accept the job requires a move to another location; this in itself is sited as being one of the most stressful things a person can go through after a death and divorce! In the grand scheme of things the move has been peanuts so far - it is teaching a subject I know little to nothing about that is really causing me untold stress.
What does this stress look like? It manifests as a raise in my base heart rate; I also notice my chest is tight and my respiration rate is elevated. I have had little more than 4-5 hours sleep most nights since I decided to take this job and I have so much self-chatter in my head that I sometimes wonder if in fact there are several people living there. I have also lost weight (that's a bonus!), but that's probably due to being actively distracted by cleaning my house, driving umpteen  kilometres delivering my world packed in boxes and not eating when I should.
Someone comes to get the fridge today. This I regard as the ultimate sign of things never being the same and most definitely confirmation that tomorrow I drink warm milk. 
Tonight is my last night in my wee cottage.

It is on the market to be sold and I drive away leaving it empty until such time as someone else decides to love her the way I did. This is the hard part - I loved my wee house. It was perfect for just me and I had many plans to change her and evolve her into a better version of herself in future years, but that will never be realised as I will more than likely never return to live in Timaru again. 
As I come to the end of my time here, I reflect on how it all started. 
I arrived here to teach at the local tertiary organisation on a one year contract. In my head it was only for a year so I rented  a house and lived with very little furniture because "it was only for a year". At the time it was very stressful moving from the Nelson area down to Timaru - a town that I had only driven through twenty years earlier enroute to a wedding in Invercargill. I hated that first year. I knew no one; I didn't even go to Seido Karate (I had trained for twenty years) although I knew if I did I would be "home". Four years later I owned a home, was training at karate and had met wonderful people there; I had friends through work and the gym; and I had a job that provided a sense of satisfaction. It felt like home. It was home.
Things change - that's life - it's how we manage change that matters. As I stand in front of my science students two weeks from now, I know the anatomy of change will once again remind me that there is an end to the physiological responses of stress ... and that will be when I settle in and accept that it is what it is.