Kindness Gift Shop

I was not on board at first.

I didn’t say that out loud, I kept that to myself. But I was less than enthusiastic. It was tough to get my head around the logistics and the point of the whole thing.

However, it wasn’t my vision and I wasn’t about to squash someone else’s big idea. So I got on board, albeit reluctantly.

The “it” was a gift shop for students to purchase items for someone they love. They paid for the gift using a Kindness Ticket they had earned by doing something nice for others. The store would be stocked with gently used items from staff and community.

We had close to 500 students. That’s a lot of items to collect. A lot of kindness tickets to distribute, a lot gifts to wrap which requires a lot of manpower.

Not my vision, not my idea to squash.

So I asked friends for donations and scoured our home for items that might be suitable. And it started to come together. A former office was converted into a shop and the gifts began to pour in.

Another concern I had was over how the students would feel about choosing a second-hand item instead of something new. Many of our kids live close to the poverty line and I was worried about their dignity. Again, I trusted those who were leading the project and kept my doubts to myself. I started catching my students doing things for others and handed out our Kindness Tickets.

Remember the manpower issue? Not an issue. Retired teachers and university volunteers along with community members manned the store and it was up and running. Any doubt I had that this might not work were swept away when my first student was invited to go shopping. The pride in earning a ticket was overshadowed by the absolute joy they had upon their return to our classroom with a carefully wrapped gift in hand.

Some students announced what they had bought and who it was for while others decided to keep it a secret. The care and thought that went into each purchase was staggering. The supportive excitement they had for each other’s selections was unexpected. They even scouted out possible gifts for their friends to select: “I saw a purse that would be perfect for your grandma!”

The Kindness Gift Shop was a success.

The next year it was decided to do it again. Would we have enough items a second year? Would the novelty have worn off? Would people be willing to volunteer again.

Yes. Donations rolled in. My own parents contributed rolls of wrapping paper along with gift items. The timing of their downsizing move to a condo was ideal. I brought a trunk full of supplies from a town two hours away because I matter to my family and so my school matters to them.

We are a few years in now and this November when I announced to my class that the Kindness Gift Shop would be happening it was met unanimously with cheers followed quickly by outbursts of their plans.

“Last year I got a gift for my mom so this year I’m getting something for my baby sister.”

“I’m getting something for my grandma this year!”

“I can’t wait to get something for pops. I don’t have any money, but he deserves something special.”

New and returning volunteers signed up to help. Wrapping supplies were restocked and new Kindness Tickets were distributed.

As the week of the shop opening approached one student asked me if everyone had earned their ticket yet. I explained that while we have a kind group, a few still needed to be recognized. That’s when my heart grew three sizes.

“Has Josh* received one yet? Because I saw him helping Amina with her math and he deserves one.”

“What about Ryan? He always lets us use his smelly markers.”

“Asia needs her ticket because she invites anyone to join her games at break.”

“I notice that Daniel always looks out for Chris and they have become really good friends.”

“Can we tell you about kids from other classes that have been kind?”

This went on for ten minutes or more. They stopped asking if their classmates had gotten their tickets and just kept sharing all the positive things they noticed about each other. Kids who sometimes went under the radar heard how they were seen by their peers and they sat a bit taller. Students would nod and murmur their agreement about the kind attributes others mentioned. This was a turning point in our classroom community and for me. It’s nice to be noticed by your teacher, but it’s powerful to be recognized by your classmates.

It’s not easy to change or try new things. We are creatures of habit and seek comfort in the predictable. I’m grateful for those who took a risk and thought big. I’m grateful to work with educators who take chances and make a difference. I’m grateful to be part of a community who seeks to care for students they might never meet.

When someone thinks big, support them.

And maybe tell your doubts to just pipe down.

Crayon Time Travel

I have been inside schools my entire life. First as a student and then for the past two decades as a teacher. That is a lot of hallways, classrooms, and offices. And smells. Oh, the smells. Wet shoes, basketballs, the glue we are no longer allowed to use due to “health concerns”, paint, and crayons.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The crayons.

Any time I smell that sweet tang of a fresh box of crayons I flashback to my elementary school. Not my high school or the first school I taught in. Always and forever that smell reminds me of a very specific time and place. I went there for eight years, but the memory is always of grade three and me wearing a green t-shirt. An oddly specific yet at the same time unimportant memory.

Memories are funny that way.

Just like an 80s sitcom that decided to phone it in and do a flashback episode, I can be instantly transported to the past by just a smell. Maybe it’s my superpower, who’s to say? I have yet to unleash its full potential, that’s for sure, and it is definitely competing with my other power of disposing of secret snack wrappers. But it is real and I feel like it is getting stronger with time, much like the cracking sound my knees make BUT WE AREN’T TALKING ABOUT THAT TODAY.

Every spring when the peonies and lilacs come out I find myself riding my old blue ten-speed bike with a bouquet of freshly-cut flowers for my teacher. They are wrapped in a wet paper towel and I clutch them tightly with one hand while navigating the short ride to school with my other. I can still see them atop Miss Zondervan’s desk in a green vase.

Walking into a home that has coffee brewing is a direct pipeline to my Aunt Steffie’s kitchen on a Sunday morning. Our families alternated homes for post-church “coffee” (it’s a Dutch thing) and one whiff of that sweet elixir being made and I can see the machine in the corner of her kitchen while she places sweets on a plate as if I am standing there today.

Winter brings early evenings, Christmas lights, and cozy fires. I might be in the van or taking a walk when the distinct scent of crackling fire from a nearby home is in the air, and bam! I am in our maroon Oldsmobile 88  on a winter night heading to my Uncle Jake’s house for a Christmas party. The kids all hung out in his basement with the massive console TV and ate chips in freedom from the adults laughing it up in the living room. Those were the nights that if you stayed out of sight long enough your parents forgot you were there and you could stay up extra late with the big kids.

Did you ever have a pair of mittens that fit great when you first got them, but soon the thumb hole on one didn’t line up and you were forced to wear them with your one thumb cramping from being held at a weird angle? That’s not just me, be honest. If I smell a wet wool mitten, I can feel my left thumb tingle with the memory of a pair of mauve mitts from 1980-something. Stacey in my class had the same pair and we often mixed them up when they were drying on the heather in the hallway. But we could always figure out which pair was mine because FAULTY THUMB HOLE.

I could write a whole series of posts on memories conjured up by simple smells:

Jiffy Pop = Mrs. St. Pierre’s house on a Friday night.

Black licorice = the jellybeans my grandpa kept in his shirt pocket.

A freshly-lit candle = my childhood kitchen.

Newly-applied nail polish – getting my nails painted gold by my big sister.

Freshly-scooped pumpkin guts = roasting seeds in kindergarten with Mrs. Laurence.

Just-opened bag of chips = playing games with my cousins at Auntie Ina’s house.

Tim Hortons chocolate dip doughnut = getting ready for a family road trip by picking up a party pack.

These memories seem to all be chunked into my early years. I’m not sure about its significance or if there is any rhyme or reason. But it happens more and more and I’m not complaining.

These are simple memories, not the trips we took or the long-coveted gifts I received. They are every day events. The common factor is that they are all connected to family and friends. Sharing those day-to-day moments with people who mattered are what I keep conjuring.

Sometimes I worry that time is going by too quickly and we haven’t done enough or been enough for our kids. But we eat dinner together, play card games (even though they cheat at Old Maid), brew tea and pop popcorn. Maybe we’re depositing into their olfactory memories and one day the smell of freshly-baked brownies will cause them to pause and call their mom. Or text. I’ll take it.

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May the smell of clean laundry bring back the time you had no dry underwear and since we didn’t have a dryer we were forced to improvise.

Jenga Community

You take a block from the bottom and you put it on top. You take a block from the middle and you put it on top.

It teeters and it totters.

It weebles and it wobbles, but you don’t give up.

In September my teaching partner and I opened up a new pack of Jenga. Not literally, of course, but humour me. We opened up the box and there were twenty-eight fresh new blocks. Each one had a name and a story. They looked similar, but once you looked closer you could see the lines and grains that made each piece unique.

Gradually, over the days, weeks, and months, we created a tower together. Other pieces played pivotal roles: our fairy godmothers who brought us apples to feed hungry learners, guest teachers who taught us problem-solving and teamwork, community officers who cared enough to teach us about safety concerns. Steadily and quietly a Music teacher, a French teacher, the Special Education team and school administration came alongside and with care and intentionality created a strong foundation. Cheering and encouraging us in the background were yard duty teachers, support staff, and parents.

A few times our tower teetered. It tottered. It even toppled. But each time we picked up the pieces and rebuilt our tower. We created something special: a classroom community.

Some students joined and some left. We kept their pieces because they are part of who we are. They were part of the creating process and therefore part of us.

Over time the pieces shifted and repositioned as friendships faded and new ones developed. We faced loss and heartache more than once. We learned to be resilient and that it is okay to cry.  Happy and sad feelings can co-exist.

Our Jenga class learned that failure is part of growing. When we attempt to do hard things we sometimes fall down, but the joy is in the rebuilding. It’s wise to be patient and reassess before jumping back in. Efficacy is a result of taking a breath, pausing, and then moving forward.

Gradually, the blocks became the builders. The students set goals and held each other accountable for their actions. They cheered each other on and checked in when a classmate struggled.img_20180619_1300209125618980449881978.jpg

During the final days of this school year we reflected on our classroom community. We took our actual blocks from the middle and put them on top. The pieces eventually toppled, because that is the purpose of the game after all, isn’t it? But it was not a failure, it was a symbol of our strength. Everyone took their block home that day knowing they could be a pivotal piece in another community.img_20180619_1304237735077294405287287.jpg

No matter where they go, they will remember that they were part of something special: our classroom family.

 

 

Grapefruit and Sundaes

She wasn’t a warm or doting person, I don’t think it was anything personal, it just wasn’t her nature. Gruff, no-nonsense, and strict are apt descriptors. When I recall my time as a grade three student, complete with my terrible mullet and gangly arms and legs, my memories include learning the Canadian provinces and capitals, cursive writing, long division, and her. Miss Van Gurp. 

She had a reputation for being mean. Haven’t we all had that teacher? The one the kids whisper about on the playground and warn you to avoid? The teacher you hope you don’t have. The teacher you inevitably get.

Miss Van Gurp didn’t put up with antics. She indeed was strict, to the point of smacking hands with a metal ruler if you really stepped out of line (the rumours were true!). She wasn’t a smiler and she demanded compliance. She was not an adult who doled out hugs or high fives. You were expected to do your work and you simply received a quiet nod for a job well done.

Students often forget that teachers have multiple sides and aspects to their lives and characters. We all tend to forget that about each other, don’t we? We put people into boxes and categories, unaware of the subtext of people’s actions and words.

Recently a post popped up in my social media feed of a citrus fruit fundraiser for an elementary school and it reminded me of a story from years ago.

Once there was a young girl in grade three who had a sick sister. Her parents were frequently out of the country to provide their daughter with the medical care she needed. The girl and her other siblings spent days and sometimes weeks staying with various caring family friends. 

Soon it was time for the annual school fundraiser – citrus sales. Every student who sold a box of fruit would receive an ice cream sundae, the kind in the plastic cup with the little wooden spoon. 

The girl’s parents were out of town during this time and even if they were home, she wouldn’t have pursued citrus sales. Even at the age of eight, she knew she wouldn’t put that on to their overcrowded plate. That’s just the way it was then, it wouldn’t be forever. Next year.

A few days into the sale, her teacher called her up to her desk at the front of the room. She had a sales slip half filled out with a grapefruit order. 

“I’d like to get a box of grapefruit, could I buy it from you?” she asked, barely lifting her eyes up from the ink blotter.

The girl hardly knew what to say, but she knew what this meant. She would get to partake in the sundae celebration, just like all the other kids. In the midst of family upheaval and crisis, she would have this little bit of normalcy.

“Okay,” was all that squeaked out. The teacher completed the form, then carefully separated the carbon copies: white for the school, yellow for the salesperson, and pink for the customer.

“Thank you, I appreciate it,” she said gruffly as she handed the girl the pink page, “you may go to your seat now.”

In a giddy daze the girl went back to her desk. 

A fews later when the sales were completed, she proudly collected her ice cream treat with the rest of the school. It was chocolate, of course. She carefully peeled back the cardboard cover and she licked that plastic dish clean.

Sometimes “I see you. You matter. I care,” sounds a lot like “I’d like to buy some grapefruit.” You just have to listen.

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Change is the Worst

The other day I was listening to a podcast. There I said it. I am a podcast listener. It was the latest episode of Revisionist History and they were discussing The Paradox of Theseus Ship. The gist of it is that if a ship is changed gradually over time wherein planks are replaced one by one, is it still the same ship as when it was first built?

As always, I enjoyed the episode (it’s a good podcast, and it’s hosted by a Canadian, give it a listen) and it helped pass the time as I cleaned the toilets, put clothes away and packed lunches. It made me think, but only for a few moments and then I moved on to bedtime routines and planning for the week ahead.

A day or two passed in a blur and then we had a staff meeting. As a rule, teaching is all about change. We get a new start with a new class every fall. Teaching assignments are rearranged, rooms switched, staff try new things. So I was completely prepared to receive news that some of our staff would be moving on to new schools and new roles. We had already seen some gradual changes this year which were grieved, processed, then celebrated for our friends. But this round of staffing threw me (and many fellow educators) for a loop. Our leader, who has inspired, supported, encouraged, and guided us for over four years, was the one moving. THIS IS NOT THE CHANGE I WAS PREPARED FOR.

The morning was rife with emotions of shock, sadness, joy (current staff would be taking on the leadership roles – yay!) and back to mourning. Then I decided to put all my big feelings into a box and tuck it on a shelf to be opened later when I could process it all. This spring has brought about many staffing changes and I was losing some of my best work friends, teammates, and partners (yes, Bearded Husband is moving on to an exciting new role, too).

It is hard to be the ones left, no matter how good the motivation or opportunity being embraced.

During the quiet of my drive home I heard a whisper “the ship is changing gradually, piece by piece, but it’s still the same ship.” Sorry, could you repeat that? When did I start hearing voices? And such profound ones? Epiphanies can strike anywhere, any time.

You see, when discussing Theseus’ Ship, some argue that if the planks being removed are replaced with planks of equal structure and integrity, it is the same ship. The fundamental identity of the ship remains the same. I would say the ship is better for the change because it remains strong and voyage-ready.

I mourn the gaping hole that these people leave in the wake of their job change. I cry because I will miss seeing them daily, they are my friends. But they are leaving well. They are excited, but grieving, too. They are strong and steady and valued and they are off to replace the planks of other ships.

We get to welcome and create a space for the new planks on our ship. And we will be stronger and better for it. I know this because this change isn’t new. Our ship has undergone this change multiple times. And it was scary and sad and full of tears every time. Yet here we are. Steady, strong, and valued.

It’s time to open that box and let those feelings out. It’s going to be okay.

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Me, on the last day of school

 

 

The Best is Yet to Come

I cried when I went on the hospital tour twelve years ago before having my first baby.

I felt the same tonight at the middle school tour.

Twelve years ago Bearded Husband rubbed my back and asked me what was wrong. It was as difficult to articulate then as it is now.

I’m excited about the next step, but I am frightened to lose what we have. This is the point of no return. This baby is coming out soon and our lives will be forever changed. As thrilling as the future will be, I am mourning the loss of what is right now. We are moving from the two of us and changing into a family of three.Am I excited to become a mom? Of course. Am I scared of losing my identity, my freedom, my career, my “me-ness”? Definitely.

But that seemed selfish, to be afraid of putting someone else’s needs first, of giving up my naps/free time/flexibility for this new little person we cannot wait to meet. And so twelve years ago I replied, “I’m just scared, this is all becoming real. And you know I don’t like hospitals.” O's feet

And now it is here. The moment I have anticipated and dreaded since last year when I realized this was our baby boy’s final year in his elementary school. He is moving on.

He has already moved on. I know that. He has increasing freedom which means we have decreasing insight into his daily life. He spends more time with his friends and less time with us. He is developing his own identity, his own set of values, his own experiences. As he should.

But I feel sad.

Sure, I feel happy and proud and excited for him, and grateful for who he is becoming. I am thankful for the friends he has and the young man he is turning into. But I feel sad.

And that is okay.

I can mourn this change. He is moving onto a life apart from us. We are no longer the centre of his life. I grieve that soon I won’t walk him to school or meet him on the playground when the day ends. I can cry at the loss of my little boy as he slowly transform into a teen.

It’s okay because I keep that part of my heart tucked away. I put on a brave face and attendws the middle school open house. I joke about wearing matching t-shirts and blaring VBS music out the windows when we arrive at his future school. I toured the classrooms and explained “home room” and “rotary” to him and told him that “yes, we will give you permission to go to the plaza at lunch time” and “sure, we can buy you a combination lock for your locker” all the while holding back by shuddering sobs that our days of Lego and Hot Wheels and reading at bedtime are done.

When I got home from the tour, my husband commented that “wow, you’re really having a hard time with him growing up, aren’t you?” I tearfully replied, “Yes, yes I am.”

But that is not all of the truth.

I am not sad that he is growing up, I know that is a reality of life. I am sad that a chapter of our life is closing. This is the point of no return. Again.

As he headed upstairs tonight, my boy stopped and turned, and gave me a big hug. And I didn’t let go until he did first.

Just like when we welcomed him into the world, I need to remember that despite my mourning, the best is yet to come. No, correction. It is already here.

I Don’t Want Another Baby

Enjoy each moment, they go by so quickly.

Savour those cuddles, before you know it they won’t want to hug anymore.

Don’t blink – they grow up so fast.

I listened to those wiser, more experienced moms. I heeded the words of grandmothers in grocery stores who doted on my newborn offspring (except for the advice to put socks on, it was summer after all). I enjoyed babyhood while it lasted. Just as I love the stages that our boys are at now.

And yet, I want to go back.

I do not want another baby. Our family is complete, of that I have no doubt, but I want to go back.

Oh, to relive the moment I laid eyes on each of them for the very first time and heard the announcement, “It’s a boy!” Meeting that tiny person who I already knew so well.

I want to have a newborn lie on my chest sleeping and feel his breath on my cheek. But not just any newborn, I want to hold one of my boys like that again and take it all in. For a day, an hour, a moment.

If only it was possible to travel back and see that little face peeking through the rails of his crib. To hear the way my second-born snorted when he laughed at seven months, how our oldest pronounced “restaurant”. I remember these things just fine, but I wish I could experience them again.

I’d savour it a bit more. I’d pay a little bit more attention. I’d appreciate those small things for the fleeting experience that they were.

This is not to say I regret anything. I’m not sad to see these boys turning into young men. Life is good and each day brings something new. I love reading chapter books at bedtime, watching Star Wars through their eyes, playing games that are more complicated than Candy Land.

And yet, I want to go back.

I’d like to see my third born dancing as a toddler, push one of my babies in the swing at the park, see a little face turn because he recognized my voice above all others.

This desire to travel back to those moments makes me cherish this time with my boys now. It causes me to stop doing dishes or folding laundry when I hear a small voice ask me to play cars, or ride bikes, or take a swim. When my oldest asks if he can sit on my lap after dinner, I always say “yes” because one day soon I will long to travel back and relive that moment, too.

Enjoy each moment, they go by so quickly.

Savour those cuddles, before you know it they won’t want to hug anymore.

Don’t blink – they grow up so fast.

 

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