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On other new beginnings and other new beginnings’ ends…

Howe Sound

“Every man moves on,” says my father quietly, and I think he speaks of Santa Claus, “but there is no need to grieve. He leaves good things behind.”

From Alistair Macleod’s “To Everything There is a Season

At certain times in life, there is too much to rightly say – too much felt, experienced, too many lives intersected, relationships fostered, or memories shared. Attempts to set down thoughts and feelings at a time like this obscure anything that falls outside that declaration; people, sentiments, scenes, and places are erased not for their lack of importance, but because in trying to describe the wholewe inevitably lose sight of the infinite complexities that compose it.

That said, there are the statements of fact to be reckoned with, and with that in mind I do want to share that as of next year I will undertake a secondment as a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University, working as part of their professional programs to certify new teachers. For the first time in ten years I will be starting a new job, moving beyond the home and students and role I’ve known for the near-entirety of my professional career, and becoming again the New Guy, an apprentice green and young among my more seasoned colleagues.

These last few years I’ve found myself an experienced member of my school community: confident to speak up, take on leadership roles, experiment with pedagogy and assessment, to fight for my vision of equity and justice for my students and colleagues. But with this confidence I’ve also been struck with a sense of wanderlust. As nice as it has been to feel as though I have a handle on what I’m doing, a part of me has longed to leap into the unknown.

Firm in the belief that we are growing most when we are forced beyond our comfort zones, I began to feel that I had been pushing hard in a host of professional directions – union activism, curriculum development, professional collaboration – and that, in time, this pushing would take me somewhere beyond my local school community. Indeed I had enrolled in and completed a master’s program over the last few years so that such future doors might be open to me, should I seek them out, even without a firm idea of what these new adventures might entail.

To be sure, my work with the TALONS is and has been too good to be true. In its every iteration it is education as it could and should be: community-focused, experiential, authentic, and personal for teachers and students alike. Our students and their families are deeply supportive and committed to making our program reach ever more daring heights and achievements, and celebrate each cohort’s learning with enthusiasm and love that is infectious and inspiring. I have been fortunate beyond words to call this program home these last ten years, and have not taken the opportunity to step away lightly. No small part of me worries that I will never have it so good; but I know that such fears can too often get in the way of stepping out into those new frontiers that we will come to call home.

It is time to scare myself with uncertainty, lean into the discomfort of unfamiliarity, and know again the work that comes with breaking trail.

I would be remiss however if in this time of looking forward I did not look back at a few of the people and places that have given shape to my last decade, without whom whatever lies ahead would not be possible. Without whom the perspective that writes these words would not have come into being.

JAM #SQUAD

Q and Andy

Though they each deserve their own novels of gratitude and attempts to describe what it means to be both colleagues and family, a few words here must be devoted to my TALONS teaching partners, Quirien Mulder ten Kate and Andy Albright.

For her part, TALONS would not exist without Q. In the first it would not be a program in our district for gifted high school students; and in the second it would most certainly not exist in any of its current or future iterations without her superlative energy and devotion to students, learning, the natural world, and the purest ideals of public service.

Since I have known her (with every indication that the trend was established long before), Q has done the work of several people: teaching courses within and beyond the regular timetable, supporting extra-curricular events and activities on evenings and weekends, attending musical and dramatic performances without fail, completing a PhD while she taught summer and night school, volunteering at Wildlife Rescue, and working to support her parents, niece and nephew, as well as a host of godchildren. She is a paragon of productivity, cutting to-do lists to smithereens in the service of others to an extent I have trouble understanding, even while I’ve been able to study her at close proximity for a decade.

Team TeachingFew of us will do so much in our lives to improve the state of our communities or the lives of others as Q does in a month. It has been a densely packed, invigorating, evolving, reflective and critically educational ten years working alongside her, forcing me to stretch my weaker areas as well as to know my own strengths and how better to positively impact my communities of practice both within and beyond the school. Ours has been a relationship of compliments, where each of us has owned the skills and dispositions lacking in the other, and where a state of fluidity and trust has enabled us to grow a program and working relationship that pushes us each to become bigger than we are. I owe every moment of my TALONS experience to her superlative tenacity and devotion to making our program a reality, as do every one of the TALONS, past and future.

And where Q might exude a life lived to its full depth – with singular obsessions explored to their very essences and marrow – Andy joined our program for four years before retiring this winter to lend a sense of life’s breadth. Having come to teaching in his thirties, Andy had previously worked for years in group homes for people living with disabilities, played in bands in the British Columbian Kootenays, and travelled across Canada as a high school senior in a yellow school bus researching the heights of the rock era. He’s sipped Italian wine in Italy, slept under the stars in Oregon, and spent a good amount of his twenties in the Vancouver counterculture-enclaves of Kitselano, Squamish, and North Van before they were millionaire retreats and lucrative offshore investments.

Andy has read the “good” books, can quote Dylan (Thomas, or Bob), loves Monty Python, and frequently recites long passages of The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye. He and I spent a lot of time on busses, around campfires, and laughing at the stupendous incompetence of the local compliment of moving truck companies. We told one another stories, remembered old friends, and shared much of the time we were able to have with one another with a similar purpose: to let what would be emerge, and to determine its meaning and significance afterwards. Ever a calm and articulate force, Andy brought an intentionality and thoughtfulness to TALONS that balanced Q and I, and couldn’t help but influence my life outside of school.

Often in our talks late at night around the campfire – ostensibly keeping watch for TALONS wanderers who might be looking for some teenaged evening freedom – we would lie under the stars and Andy would remember stories about his long-passed friend, Mark, someone I never met but who infused our relationship with the knowledge that even once these moments were no longer – once we had retired, or moved onto other gigs, or whatever would yet transpire – our friendship and the memories of these golden, glowing years would continue.

Where each of my colleagues is concerned, they will be carried with me for the rest of my days. We’ve stood around many a smouldering campfire late at night, debriefing and discussing the day’s events, hiked mountainsides in torrential rain, and chased bears from our campsites together, all of which – and much more between – can only be known by those who will work with the TALONS.

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The Woods

A good deal of my professional life since university has transpired in the woods. In fact, my first legitimate educational work was teaching swimming and canoeing, lifeguarding and sailing, as well as what might have been called outdoor leadership in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas at a summer camp for Boy Scouts. Having been awarded an internship to study the Scouts organization by working at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation in 2003, I returned in ’04 and ’05, and gained the teaching experience and other prerequisites to enter the PDP Program and obtain my teaching certification (without ever explicitly pursuing education as a career path).

I had always enjoyed camping, skiing, and swimming in lakes and rivers, of course. But partway through my time in Arkansas I began to take weekend adventures with a teammate (from Prince George, BC) into the southern wilds, and similarly started to lustily plan my summers home in BC with an extra fervour for the oceanside mountains of the coastal range. I started to read Walden, and Jack Kerouac, and non-fiction tomes by Sebastian Junger and John Krakaur while I starting to reach toward what lessons that the wildernesses of my two homes might have to teach me.

In a way, it was how I connected to British Columbia, even while living far from home: what makes the left coast special, to my mind, will always be the unique collision of mountains and the sea. And so while I roamed the south I kept an eye out for the woods and forests on the edges of town: my roommates and I took canoe trips on the White and Buffalo Rivers, we explored the Ozark National Forest, and made regular trips to the top of Pinnacle Mountain just outside of Little Rock.

Eventually I would be working for the Boy Scouts, and not long after that be in PDP, and then teaching the TALONS program, getting the job on the heels of volunteering on the program’s first adventure trip in 2006. The following year, I became a TALONS teacher and our classroom took to the hillsides of Eagle Ridge, and Buntzen Lake, the Fraser River and Harrison Hot Springs. Squamish. The Gulf Islands. The Sunshine Coast.

In our work, Q and Andy, and now Dave and I have been fortunate to act as ambassadors for the natural world, tour guides into botany, natural history, wilderness survival, and leave-no-trace camping. Our jobs take us into the backcountry, down rivers and over mountains, engage us in the most unique collaborations and problem solving situations. We have met the most wonderful people, and been involved in the most challenging pedagogies out of doors. And we have been fortunate to share our joy in living in BC with young people, who leave our program with a raft of experiential memories created in the magic of the coastal wilds: having learned, as one does, the most authentic lessons about life and the self that Mother Nature makes available to us.

TALONS Grade Nine Retreat

The Precious

“It’s not the end of anything: now you get to go out into the world and recreate this, whatever you think this is.”

TALONS grade twelve peer tutor Katie F, speaking to grade tens on the last night of the Adventure Trip in 2012.

There are a lot of educational buzz words the TALONS program has recognized in its evolving embrace of 21st century learning these last many years: place-based, inquiry, experiential, collaborative or community-based, as well as a host of others. There are myriad ways in which the Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model has bent and evolved to contain multitudes, and as I am fond of quoting Emerson, has proven time and again that “At the periphery there is infinite complexity, while at the centre there is simplicity of cause.”

The simplicity of cause that we have lived by these last ten years, which has infused the TALONS program and the lives of those who have passed through its two year cycle, has been the idea that while we all take part in the same basic structures and contexts of learning, what is learned is up to the individual. It is a prerequisite of emergent learning that what is learned arises from the uniquely individual contributions and perspectives of those involved, and cannot be predetermined.

We cannot know from year to year or cohort to cohort what will come about through the traditional pillars of a given TALONS year. The themes, jokes, stories, and lessons of each group are created and held onto by the individuals that pass through the classroom and our community; and while there are rhymes or echoes of the years gone by, each year has brought about completely new iterations of the TALONS community. No two experiences, individual or collective, has yet to be the same.

But there is something that runs through: a simplicity of unspoken cause that keeps our alumni coming back to our Night of the Notables or InDepth Celebrations, maintains friendships across university educations, and keeps us committed as teachers to sleepless nights in May and June, and tearful conclusions at the end of the year. A few years back this unnamed entity started being referred to as The Precious: that unknowable essence that first arises on the Fall Retreat, and fuels the enthusiasm of the Eminent Person Study, and culminates in the storm of April, May, and June (always pronounced Aprilmayjune). It is that feeling, known to those who have felt it, but which they cannot describe to outsiders. It is the reason that the frenzy of what may appear from the outside to be too much, too taxing, or too strenuous, is never worthy of regret.

As I began this post, I can still only admit that there is too much to say, really. There have been too many experiences, memories, and lessons along the way. Arguably it has been something that few will be able to relate to, but that those who know will understand without explanation.

I will defer here to a joke made of the attempt to sum up what TALONS means to those on their way out, and in addition to these near-twenty four hundred words, offer the reflections of our alumni, Liam, who said simply, “It was good.”

So good.

On Thoreau's Birthday

Between 2003 and 2005 I spent three consecutive summers working in the woods of the Ozark Foothills in Arkansas at a summer camp, living in tents alongside sixty some young instructors huddling our lives around the idea that the indulgent experience of nature could provide some truth. We would wake with the dawn and attend daily meetings in our staff cabin where daily scribbled on a slate blackboard would be a quote that solidified or represented the philosophy of our idealistic enclave. More often than not the board would be adorned with the words of Henry David Thoreau, who today celebrates his birthday.

“Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.”

Walden 1854

The quotes indulged a romantic literary bent in many of us (I was at the time a 22 year old creative-writing student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock), and gave way to discussions about Matthew Arnold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hemingway and Conrad as we paced the dewy grass on the way to the flag plaza for daily pomp and ceremony. With soil under our boots, and a day’s toil in sweat and filth that would last satisfyingly until after dark for six running weeks (day’s off from noon Saturday till Sunday), the transcendental words of the late poets and authors confirmed our suspicion that we had truly left nothing back in the cities of Little Rock and Conway, Vancouver or Coquitlam, and that we were pursuing something elemental, in the woods, something vital.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Walden 1854

As with any evidence supporting an individual (or collective) belief, the details of such arguments are not checked into fully, and the lustre of Thoreau’s mythology was not fully tarnished by the truth surrounding it. I commented to a coworker that we seemed to be using many of Thoreau’s words on a daily basis and that this quotability amounted to a different appreciation for his works than might have otherwise been the case. “Which was probably by design,” my friend commented, something that has stuck with me in interpreting the writer’s legacy, not only of Thoreau, but of a wider sample of authors.

As noted in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac which pays tribute to the author’s birth today, we are familiar enough with the ridge-poles of Thoreau’s biography:

“Born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). He grew up exploring the woods and fields of Massachusetts, encouraged by his mother to learn as much as he could from nature. He went to Harvard, but he didn’t like it very much — he refused a diploma since it cost five dollars. He worked for a while in his father’s pencil factory, and as a public school teacher, and he became close friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“In 1841, the Emersons invited Thoreau to live with them and work as a handyman and gardener, and he helped take care of their children, taking them on nature walks and telling them stories. Thoreau stayed with the Emersons for two years, and during that time he worked on his writing, and through Emerson, became friends with many of the Transcendentalists. In 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife rented some property from Emerson and moved to the area. When he first met Thoreau in 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his journal: “Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character — a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior.” The two became good friends, and Thoreau planted a garden for the Hawthornes and did maintenance work for Ellery Channing and his wife.

“In 1844, Emerson bought land on the shore of Walden Pond. Walden Pond was a pristine, 61-acre pond, surrounded by woods, and Emerson agreed to let his friend live on the land and build a cabin there.”

The Writer’s Almanac – July 12th, 2009

To us there could be no greater icon of the wilderness and self-reliance we felt ourselves ambassadors for six weeks every summer, and his words were capable of propelling us out into our diverse corners of the camp to instruct daily lessons in canoeing, outdoor survival, orienteering, cooking, and on and on, despite an awareness of the flaws in the conventional Thoreau Story. Keillor continues:

“People often assume that Thoreau went out into the wilderness to write his famous treatise on nature, but in fact, he was living less than two miles from the village of Concord. He had regular dinners with friends, continued to do odd jobs for the Emersons, and had frequent visitors.”

The Writer’s Almanac – July 12th, 2009

We were not the only ones. Thoreau’s influence among authors, thinkers and political leaders is as ranging as any of his period or area of writings:

Mahatma Gandhi, President John F. Kennedy, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Russian author Leo Tolstoy all spoke of being strongly affected by Thoreau’s work, particularly Civil Disobedience.

Wikipedia

Gandhi even went so far as to remark:

“[Thoreau’s] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about 80 years ago.”

Webb Miller

Though Thoreau did (technically) put his money where his mouth was, and refused to pay taxes he believed would be used to support a war he opposed, landing him in jail, he was bailed out by friends after only a night (albeit against his will) there is the same asterisk which accompanies the author’s paeans to nature: is having imagined and arranged such moving words as to call others to action more worthy an act than living out such creeds? As history bends to those who record it, one would nearly suspect that writing such ideas is much more powerful an act than singly living them. Disconnected from the imperfections and realities of the real authors of our quotations, we can strive to achieve the heights of their words’ promise.

According to Howard Zinn, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau during his night in prison. Emerson opposed the war as well, but did little to protest it, and asked his friend, “What are you doing in there?” The legend says that Thoreau replied, “What are you doing out there?”

This anecdote need not be entirely truthful, I doubt. As it was not crippling to the theory’s validity that America’s founding fathers owned slaves while they wrote “All men are created equal,” Thoreau need not be living example of his words, as it takes some time for history, for reality, and truth lived to catch up to truths expressed. If not for those who first express them, would we ever realize such dreams possibilities?