That’s what I’m allotted to describe the learners in my care, three times over under Language Arts, Math, and Unit Studies. Somehow, in that limited arena, I have to carefully illustrate how well I know these precious people. How well I understand their strengths and areas for growth, their obstacles and victories. In the span of a school year, they’ve anchored their place in my heart. How can I possibly convey the nuances that I understand in the small box granted to me?
In the 182 days that comprise a school year, I learn to watch their body language, how they enter a room, how they answer a question, how they sit when working. It becomes an instamatic evaluation: she’s had a rough morning, and needs some lead way; he needs to be reigned in before he spirals; she needs a hug; he needs to laugh. They all just need free time/extra support/a challenge. Sometimes the knowing is so instant, it feels as if I have developed psychic powers, other times I agonize over evidence to sort out where a child is, what they need in order to thrive.
I’ve lost sleep on more evenings than I care to recount; school time insomnia is my diagnosis. My mind reels with questions: how did that lesson go? Why did he/she struggle so much over that question? Are they getting what they need? What should I do differently? I dream about lessons, wake up to jot down ideas or gather resources to make it all happen. My learners become a plague to any other line of thought.
I study the evidence of their learning, determine plans for next steps, and consult with others when I am at a loss. I see their struggles as my struggles, their obstacles as a personal challenge. Their successes become a point to celebrate, with me walking through the halls wanting to tell anyone who will listen: THEY GOT IT! He gets the pattern! She spoke out loud! He doesn’t cry through lessons anymore!
They take over my life so much that I find myself picking up books thrown out on the sidewalk because so and so will enjoy this, or talking about such-and-such when on dinner dates. I enter the realm of the dreaded one-track mind where my learners are concerned.
This is what we do, we teachers. The children become our lives. People say it is a thankless job, one of giving and not receiving. I couldn’t disagree more.
As a teacher, I have the opportunity to constantly stretch and grow. I’ve learned about my weaknesses and my powers. Discovered myself as a Mama Bear advocate more times than I care to count, finding a voice and conviction that far outweighs any power I imagined I contained.
I’ve learned about things I never knew to even ask about, because I didn’t know it was a thing. I’ve had guest speakers who exposed me to new worlds, field trips that stretched my experiences, and children who introduced opportunities for learning because I needed to know how best to serve them. Children, in their extreme honesty, have given me fashion tips, character recommendations, and teaching feedback so brutally honest I had no choice but to find ways to improve. They constantly demand that I chisel away at who I currently am so that I might uncover my better self.
1,0000 characters to capture all that. Over 16 years, 1,000 characters allotted under three subjects, twice a year, for the 887 students who have been under my charge. For those of you like me who see everything as a potential math problem, how many character has Ms. Threlfall--- I’ll stop myself. That’s 42,576,000 characters.
And I just wrote the last of mine.
I am entering into a new phase of my career, stepping out of the classroom so that I might serve education in a different way while also having more energy available for a laundry list of important things, not the least of which is my very own learner- the one who, not as a student-to-teacher endearment, but through birthright, calls me Mama.
It’s often the duality of truth that makes transitions so electric, charged with emotions, and this is no exception. While I am thrilled about this new step, and see my opportunity to have an impact expanding, I am also feeling deeply emotional about this transition. And so it was with great pause and procrastination that I wrote my last sentences in the last report card, to arrive at the last 1,000 words I will write under the title of Classroom Teacher.
That sentence says it all…
She consistently demonstrates the attributes of a global citizen; I look forward to seeing how she will make the world a better place. I know I am a better person through serving as her teacher.
This finally happened.
Edem received a bike with training wheels when we first arrived in the states. It was a gift from my parents. We couldn't get him off the bike at first, and then one of the training wheels broke off. I thought that it was time for him to learn how to go on a two wheeler without support. He thought it was time to avoid the bike altogether and move on to the scooter. I cajoled in every way possible to get him up on that bike, even bribed him with ice cream over the summer, but that child can seriously dig in his heels when he doesn't want to do something.
I recently suggested that we sell the bike if he wasn't interested in riding it. He shrugged in a way that let me know that his heart wasn't in alignment with his physical action, so I held off. I pretty much just let the whole bike thing go. I didn't hear a word about it for months, and then, suddenly, as we were heading out to walk over the Brooklyn bridge, I told him to grab the scooter and these words actually came out of his mouth: I want to ride the bike.
The bike? The one without training wheels? The one that has been in the basement, collecting dust, for two years????? OH HALLELUJAH ! 2016 really was off to a great start!!!
I had to act all nonchalant- if this child knew how excited I was, he might back down. Inside I was dancing a victory dance: I CAN FINALLY RIDE BIKES WITH MY CHILD!!!!!!!!
Unfortunately, the abandoned cycle had two. very. flat. tires. The look of disappointment was intense, so we threw the bike in the trunk of the car to take it to a gas station the next day, and then off we went to the bridge- him talking about the bike the whole way there.
That brings us to today. THE DAY that will forever go down in history as "The very best day of my entire whole life," as said by Edem James Threlfall Kwashie.
My child, the great bike resister, woke up and the first words I heard as he pried my eyes open were: "Today I ride the bike. Let's go!"
We borrowed a bike pump from the folks down stairs so we could fix those deflated tires. After a few goes, little man was laughing, exclaiming: "It sounds like FARTS!! THIS IS AWESOME!" ( I really truly don't know where my child disappeared to!)
Tires full, I turned to return the pump, when I heard: "I GOT IT! I GOT IT! I CAN DO IT!!"
I turned around and there he was, just riding away on that bike like it was no big thing at all. The next two hours were filled with pleas for me to take his picture, and him asking: "Are you proud of me mom? Can you believe it? "
As we pedalled home, Edem beamed. "Mom, This is the very best day of my entire whole life. I bet I am good at other things, too!."
Little man grew big today, full of pride and accomplishment, It's been a while since I saw him smile that big- the last time may have been when he learned to ride his first bike with training wheels. It feels incredible as a parent to see your child finally overcome a fear and experience success. I feel as if I just saw a little light of confidence kick on in my child's head, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.
And so that concludes Day 3 in this diary of little joys, only this one feels pretty big. I hope you also had something to make you smile today!
I got back on my mat today.
It's been a minute (okay, months) since I heard that flicker and assumed the stance for my yoga practice. As may have been evident by the two abysmal posts from 2015, that was a year that saw me on the whelmed side of things. Though 2015 had some great highlights-Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Mexico come to mind, over-all, I was incredibly happy to kiss 2015 good-bye. It was just a year filled with strife and grief in the world, and one where I struggled to maintain balance. So it is not without surprise that I am kickstarting 2016 off with a heavy dose of the practices which help to stay centred, open-hearted, and capable of dealing with stress. Namely: meditation and yoga.
Today's yoga session was, not surprisingly, exactly what I needed. A therapeutic class intended to open up tired muscles and detox the organs, our teacher also dropped in words that I needed to hear. She spoke about surrendering; breathing; releasing tension; bowing to ourselves; listening to our needs; opening our hearts. Again and again, as she spoke of our bodies, I heard only: let go; stretch; release. SURRENDER. I could feel myself relaxing, my edges getting a bit softer. In a way that has become almost foreign to me in the last few months, by the end of the session, I felt grounded. Aware. Full of vitality. I felt... alive again.
My word for 2016 is PRESENCE. By this, I mean that I want to be tuned into those around me, able to enjoy the moment, free from past stories that might colour an experience. Free of distractions Ultimately, it is a call to be mindfully aware. As I have given it some thought, it also comes with a mandate to SURRENDER to the now. This historically has been a challenge for me, as my nature is to ideate and problem solve, always thinking 10 steps ahead. When I am on the mat, I am able to let all of that go, and just tune into the practice. Similarly to what happens when I meditate, I usually walk away with answers to questions that had been plaguing me. As simple as that, put the problem aside and answers will arise!
So here we go. Day two into this new year and I'm feeling great about what lies ahead: 363 more days of deep breathing, surrendering, and embracing the moment that is before me.
May 2016 be a year that we all look back on and remember fondly. Whatever comes your way, know that I am here to be with you, present, aware, and ready to breathe beside you.
What's your word for 2016?
I wanted to walk across the Brooklyn bridge today. Not sure why, exactly, it's just what came to me the moment I opened my eyes. But damn if it wasn't cold today...
"Just say yes.... " my spirit whispered. "Everything that's ever been good in your life started with yes..."
There are always many (seemingly reasonable) reasons not to do something the moment the inspiration strikes. You're not prepared, it's not the right time, it would be better when planned out... Or like today, it's damn cold out there! "Perhaps tomorrow..." becomes an easy refrain. The problem with the stall is it can keep you from experiencing something you actually were fully prepared to experience- maybe something you NEEDED to experience.
So the next time inspiration strikes, maybe try saying this: "YES." That's it, nothing more, and then just get up and do it. I'm always grateful when I do. #yes#nofilter #Brooklynbridge
It's a busy time, and I am finding myself feeling overwhelmed with my never ending to-do list and the bills and the reports and the online course and the workshop leading and the teaching and the mothering and the cooking and the speech lessons and the homework and the cleaning and the laundry and the trying-to-be-but-failing-good friend and the flights to book and logistics to sort and the writing deadlines and the second/third/fourth jobs and mail to get out or open and the laundry. That damn laundry that just. won't. stop.
Someone said to me today: "I know, it's too much for you as a single parent. You can only take care of your son so much, you will drop some of it."
This in response to why I hadn't set him up with daily tutoring support after school, and why I had him in aftercare. "You are doing a good job for a single parent," she said.
For a single parent.
That line right there nearly made me snap. But not in two. Wide freakin' open. I was engulfed with a sort of something that I am not sure I have ever felt before. Let's just call it rage. Because right there, in those 4 little words, I felt like it was being said that everything I am breaking my back to do for my son just wasn't enough. And that feeling made me want to open up and roar. Roar with the exhaustion and the frustration, but mostly, with the fear that maybe that is right.
In reflection, I know that isn't what was meant. But the response has lingered with me all evening.
It was there at the back of my mind while cooking. While cleaning up. While putting the little guy to bed. While reading to him. While responding to parent emails for my teacher job, and while working on the online course that I lead so we can (barely) afford this NYC life.
And what bothers me the most is this idea that I am exhausted to the core, and yet...
I keep thinking about my inner response. About how I had to walk away quickly for fear of what I might unleash on this well meaning supporter. What I am realizing is that the response is the result of an empty well. There has been zero self care;I have not been filling myself up so that I am able to give more. My tolerance levels are low, I am not as energetic as I like to be, and I am easily irritated. I can feel the negativity goggles slipping on over my worldly view. This is not at all how I want to be showing up in the world.
And so now it is time to reach back into that bag of tricks and bring out the tools for happiness. I am going to commit to at least 20 minutes every day for myself. Twenty. That sounds like a tall order right now, at 12:36 a.m. but I am going to find a way to make that happen. It's oxygen mask time, and I need to get mine on before I can assist anyone else. Twenty minutes and daily WOW seeking mixed in with a little gratitude. I can do that... baby steps...
How about you? What are you doing for self-care? How do you avoid feeling exhausted to the core, or do you?
Here's a little soundtrack to get me started; maybe you need to hear this, too.
Finally solo yet still tethered to me with the chord of life, my son was placed on my belly. He squirmed and inched towards my heart.
I, having moments before unleashed a deeply grand and primal sound, could barely make my words audible.
"What... What should I do?"
Laughing, my Ghanaian midwife held wide her arms.
"Oh, Madam! You hold him! Take him in your arms and let him feel you. Let him know he’s safe."
I've asked that question at least daily since the day my son was born.
What should I do when he...
throws a tantrum?
won't eat vegetables?
breaks a rule?
cries from missing his father and friends in distant lands?
What should I do???
A refrain familiar to all parents as we seek counsel from books, friends, blogs and magazines. For the longest while, my quest for advice felt like a natural part of the rhythm of things. I was just like all of my friends, doing my best to raise my child so that he could be a happy, thriving, thoughtful citizen of the world.
I fit in with my peers- most everyone I knew was an expat, living outside their birth country, raising the child as a "third culture kid." Most of those children were living, breathing evidence of cross-cultural love. The playground hues were an endless mix of Japanese-Italian, Ghanaian-American, Indonesian-Dutch, Vietnamese-Swiss, German-Thai, Nigerian-Canadian.
We were writing our own cultural norms as we raised the tribe of global citizens. Their skin tones and gorgeously exotic eyes made our children something people were fascinated by, and though there was the odd occasional judgment, for the most part, these beautiful children were doted on for their beauty and uniqueness.
When I asked "what should I do?" I was seeking advice that could get me through to the next phase- or at least, hour- before I was baffled again by this never ending craziness of parenthood. I worried about my sanity and my son's well being, often wondering how on Earth I was going to survive the teenage years. I worried that his naughty actions might get him into a bit of trouble, or his struggles with academics might impact his grades.
But never, not once, did I worry about the color of his skin, and what that would do to impact his survival.
Until I moved to America.
Let's get something out of the way. I am a white woman. As a white woman raised in America, I didn't grow up thinking so much about the color of my skin. As far as I knew, it had little bearing on how I was treated. My smallish stature, my womanhood, my hippy phase- those things all impacted how I was treated because, let's be honest some more, America is a land run by white men who like to be in control and for things to fall in a certain kind of norm. So yes, smallish hippyish womanhood brought some issues, but not my skin tone. Whiteness brought privilege, and though I didn't even realize what that meant until I moved to Africa, I benefitted from it.
Now this white woman is raising a black boy in America. Let's get one more thing out of the way: being black in America is not an innocuous way to be. One has only to turn on the nightly news to learn that, in many neighborhoods, this is an automatic indictment that just might get you killed.
Suddenly, my "What should I do?" has a whole new weight.
What should I do to...
keep him safe when he walks out the door?
ensure he knows how to talk to police in a way that won't get him unjustly arrested?
rally my white peers to make a stand against what could happen to my boy?
On the topic of keeping our children safe, some might say: just stay away from trouble. That's the advice we would give our kids, right? Stay away from the edge of the pool, don't run out into traffic, avoid stray dogs, buckle your seatbelt...
But what advice is there to give to our sons and daughters when just walking down the street in the "safe" suburbs wearing the wrong jacket could get you shot? When the police who are meant to protect and serve are sometimes the ones snapping the spines of innocent boys? When a water gun in the hands of a 7 year old becomes imminent danger?
I'm not entirely naive- I knew from the moment I learned I was pregnant that we would face some difficulties. But I thought we had made progress. I thought our culture had shifted so that at least the police didn't behave like the clan members of the 1960s... Maybe I didn't see it because my white privilege kept this from being a part of my daily sphere of fear. Maybe what's always been there is just rising up to the surface. Either way. It is now a part of my day-to-day reality. Something I must be keenly aware of.
As I write this, my son lies sleeping in the room next to me, his now 8-year-old body reaching towards manhood. Safe. Loved. Hoped for. Just like every other child asleep in their beds.
In the background, the nightly news flashes tales of our latest failures in America, this time made evident on the streets of Baltimore. I'm at a loss. I don't know how to usher my son safely into manhood, and I don't know who to turn to for advice, because it seems that, when black in America, survival is more luck of the draw and good fortune over carefully laid plans and wise choices. There is no claiming of a third culture, no curiosity and awe over my son's gorgeous tones. Because in America, he is black. In America, to many, black means trouble.
And so, like millions of mothers whose boys are black in America, I am left wondering...
What should I do?
I've been thinking a lot about my time in India. The trip had a deep impact on me, and has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on what matters most to me, to ask: what are my core values?
When I strip away the thrill of travel, the beauty of seeing something new, and the opportunity to be an adventurer, I'm left with an an essence of connection. More specifically, human connection.
There I was, in a place very different from my own culture, with people whose life experiences were vastly different, yet we were able to connect. We shared ideas, had similar hopes and dreams, talked about love, and shared our vision for making the world a better place.
Since returning to the states, I've had this deep craving for quality connections, for a tribe I can call my own. My trip helped me to remember how important human connections are, how important community is to me. And so, my goal is to establish the same kind of global tribe here in NY that I always had when living abroad. Because, at the end of the day, when we strip everything else away, it's connecting with the hearts of others that matters most. Today, I'm grateful that I know this to be true.
"Surprise me," she whispered to the morning sky. "Touch me with your gorgeous ways."
And the heavens,with an undulating wave, exhaled great beauty.
"I will woo you forever," he replied. "Everything I do is to capture your heart and steal away your breath."
"I notice," she whispered. "I notice..."
A year ago today, this happened.
My life was placed into 82 boxes, all taped and bound, slapped with a sticker labeled: "Ibu Erin to New York."
Ibu Erin, to New York.
Ibu, the Balinese title for a woman, akin to Ms. in the states, became a small word with big meaning.
"Ibu!!!" said warmly, dripping with love, was the word I heard over and over again in my Balinese classroom.
"Ibu!" shouted across the garden as a greeting, by my beloved gardner, eager to show me the plant newly placed in the ground, or the orchid bud just opening.
"Ibuuuuuu..." followed by a warm hug and ingratiating smile, was the greeting I received from the woman whom I came to see as my life partner, my son's second mother, and the keeper of my home.
Ibu, a word that made me feel connected, tethered to Balinese ways, rooted to the island which changed my life.
When I first arrived on Bali, I was told that the island would chew me up and spit me out again and again, until I arrived at the person I was meant to be. The eternal soul polisher, Bali, I was told, would demand that I become the best version of myself. Do that, she did. Over and over again, for two years.
Not dealing with the past? HA! Not living a healthy lifestyle? HAHAHA! Allowing fear to control you? HAHAHAHA! Disconnected from the natural world? Not present in the moment? Not connecting with others? HAAAAAAAAHHHHAAAAAAAAHHHHAAAA!
When you are willing to do the work, Bali will reward you as well. With the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets, deep spiritual practice, opportunity to gather and be connected, astounding natural vistas, alternative healing practices, incredible art, and opportunity after opportunity to discover new things about the world, and who you are within it. Whatever it was that I needed in the moment, Bali provided, especially if what I needed was a good kick in the ass. Bali allowed me the opportunity to blossom, and I liked what I was seeing. But was this all transferrable?
Could "Ibu Erin" be taken to New York and thrive, or would New York, the yang to Bali's yin, whittle her away into a hard city girl?
This is a question I have been asking myself over and over again for the last year.
New York, like Bali, is an island that can chew you up and spit you out. Alive and filled with an energetic pulse, this city can drag you through the mud, run you over, and leave you in the gutter, if you allow it to. It can also be the place where opportunity is endless, and where dreams come true. New York doesn't care one way or the other which way you go, but it will certainly help you along whichever way you chose.
From the moment my 82 boxes landed in the New York harbor, my life has been on hyper-drive, trying to set up home, settle in at a new school, acclimatize my son, reconnect with old friends and attempt to kindle new ones, learn how to be a single-mom singularly, all while going through one of the worst cases of culture shock I had ever known. (They say reverse culture shock is harder than entering a new country. They are right.) Oh, and let us not forget the winter. WINTER. WAS. CRUEL. And the commute. That gosh-darn-awful-evil-commute should not go without mention.
The re-entry to American culture took me by such a storm that I couldn't even find my voice to write about it. When I tried to talk about it with others, I found that either they couldn't relate, or worse, I would just start to cry, because I didn't know the words, just the overwhelming emotions.
In need of a way out or above, maybe even just through, I finally decided to live as if I were a tourist so that I could possibly hover above it all. And so I became an expat in my own country. As much as one can, at least. With my Global citizen mentality and NY baby eyes, I was better able to see the beauty. My camera enabled me to "capture the wow," and I felt myself begin to rise above the fray.
Rising, again, and again each day, I remind myself to try to stay there. To dig deep and yank out the best version of myself that I can find. I've failed on many occasions, and in the process, I've been confronted with some of the worst parts of myself, as well. Fear, ego, exhaustion... They've all crept in and invited me to sit and stay awhile, to take up residency in a darker, though possibly easier, place. Bali, however, won't allow me to. The part of that island which took up residency in my heart consistently finds a way to remind me of my course. Along the way, I've developed some practices that help me to ensure that "Ibu Erin" continues to flourish. In the coming weeks, I'll share them with you.
For now, though, in this state of the union address, I am pleased to report that we are finding our way. Edem and I still deeply miss Bali. In many ways, we still feel like foreigners here in New York, but the reality is, we may always feel that way in each land in which we live, and that is ok. I am learning, and I believe he is as well, that wherever we go, we will be able to make a home. We will be able to thrive. We will find and nurture community, and we will be looked after, as well. I know, deeply within, that I will always have the opportunity and needed support to discover the best version of myself, whether I am in Bali, New York or Timbuktu.
Looking around my space, seeing the treasures from around the world, Bali life mixed comfortably in this New York home, I can say that we safely arrived. 365 days later, Ibu Erin made it to New York, and here, she thrives.
Union Square: Rising from the belly of the subway station, my heart leapt, and then ached as my ears took in the sounds I associate with Bali.
Boom-diddy-boom-diddy-booom on the leather top, rhythm clattering from the Kartals, and the familiar exhale of the accordion. A Kirtan.
Muscle memory took over; my body swayed and my mouth released the chants that I heard so many times on the beaches of Bali. "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna...."
The leader of the group stood and stared, a slow smile creeping out.
"Where did you learn to hold your fingers as such? How do you know these songs so well?"
"Bali taught me," I replied.
"Ahhhh, so this is why you can linger and not rush like a New Yorker."
And so opened a long conversation about the constant rush to get nowhere, ending with encouragement to savor life. This small moment seemed to be a collaborative gift from Bali and New York, my yin and yang. A gesture as if to say: you may love us both. A reminder that the places and people who have shaped us never leave our heart.
Erin Michelle Threlfall
Theatre Artist, Activist, and Educator, Erin is the mother of a budding genius in his 9th year of study. Erin and her little man, Edem, have a plan to investigate world theatre and influence education one continent at a time. Ghana, South Korea, Togo and Bali have been checked off the list of places to live; these days they call Brooklyn, NY home.