Tag Archives: Learning

Beautiful Disasters

I had some time off from work for March Break this week, so I decided to make a long-overdue trip home to Midland.  As usual, I walked through the door on Monday and immediately carried my suitcase up the stairs and into the room that was once painted an obnoxious shade of lime green.  I glanced around to see if my parents had changed much since my last visit home and then let my attention settle on the pile of papers that were waiting for me on the desk.  My eyes scanned the many Visa statements, pieces of junk mail, belated birthday cards, and magazines that had accumulated since my last visit before settling on a small stack of old pictures that my parents had recently found.  I began flipping through the collection and stumbled across this photo of myself (circa the early 90s)…

Toddler Nicole                                                                        #classy

Once I finished laughing to myself, I quickly snapped a picture with my phone and texted it to my sister with the caption, “I am going to take this as proof that my life has always been a bit of a disaster.”  We spent some time poking fun at the attitude that I supposedly had as a toddler (my family attributes this to the attention that comes with being the first grandchild) while I glanced through the rest of the photos.  I eventually placed my “disaster” photo on top of the pile and pushed the small stack of pictures to the side of my desk.

While I haven’t looked through that stack of photos again anytime in the past five days, I have glanced at the photo on the top of the pile and laughed to myself more than a few times.  After all, it really does make me look like a little disaster of a toddler.  But yesterday, I caught myself wondering exactly what I had meant by the caption that I chose to attach to the photo when sharing it.  Why did I feel the need to describe my life as a disaster?  Was I just making a joke or was there something more to it?  What was it about the mess in the picture that I instantly connected to my life at this moment?

Well, I immediately began pointing to aspects of my life that would help to explain this comment away – unpaid debt, a year of unemployment, complicated relationships, my willingness to change career paths every three days – and I thought I had justified my original comment.  But then I began prodding beyond the surface of these explanations and challenged myself to be a little more honest about my feelings.  And as it turns out, when I stopped hiding behind some imaginary construct that was telling me that life is supposed to be perfect and worry-free, I actually couldn’t come up with any valid reasons to call my life a disaster.  All of the things that I had originally identified as difficult aspects of my life certainly don’t make me a disaster.  They simply make me human.

And here’s the thing about being human…

It’s not easy.

Love.  Relationships.  Money.  Careers.  These things are hard.  Really, really hard.  And there is no rule book designed to help us out along the way.  So we learn our lessons by trying and failing, hurting and being hurt, falling down and doing our best to get back up.  Life is messy, but it is meant to be that way.  So instead of feeling the need to qualify away the difficult stuff with silly captions, perhaps we should spend some time knee-deep in the messes that make up our lives each day and recognize that we have a lot to learn from them.

The things that challenge us are not peripheral to our lives.  They are part of our lives.  And there is a lot to be learned from letting ourselves be okay with those feelings of disaster sometimes.  It may be easier to focus only on making the difficult stuff disappear, but I also believe that it is important to consider the deeper meaning of the feelings that keep us up at night, make our eyes water in the middle of a crowded subway, or make us want to take a deep breath and scream at the top of our lungs.  Because treating all of the messy things in life as obstacles that we simply need to push through in order to start really living only serves to undermine the fact that we are all imperfect humans just trying to find our way.

There may not be an easy answer to the many “disasters” that we all face each day, but perhaps a small part of finding our way involves looking around at the important people in our lives and making a small promise to be imperfectly human together.  And whether that means watching a toddler spill a bowl of peanuts across the living room floor or struggling together through moments of difficult and honest emotions, I think that can be a pretty beautiful thing.

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Thinking in Bed

I recently celebrated a birthday and gifts from my family included three wonderful children’s books.  It is no secret that I love reading children’s literature (possibly more than I enjoy reading “grown-up” books) and these three books have been great additions to my collection.  Among them is a book of poetry for children entitled Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee.  While I usually enjoy the simplicity of lessons presented in children’s books, I found one poem in this collection to be particularly compelling as a lesson for people of all ages:

Thinking in Bed

I’m thinking in bed,
‘Cause I can’t get out
Till I learn how to think
What I’m thinking about;
What I’m thinking about
Is a person to be—
A sort of a person
Who feels like me.

I might still be Alice,
Excepting I’m not.
And Snoopy is super,
But not when it’s hot;
I couldn’t be Piglet,
I don’t think I’m Pooh,
I know I’m not Daddy
And I can’t be you.

My breakfast is waiting.
My clothes are all out,
But what was that thing
I was thinking about?
I’ll never get up
If I lie here all day;
But I still haven’t thought,
So I’ll just have to stay.

If I was a Grinch
I expect I would know.
I might have been Batman,
But I don’t think so.
There’s so many people
I don’t seem to be—
I guess I’ll just have to
Get up and be me.

Now, we all tend to take things from literature that we can most relate to in our own lives and we find comfort in words that describe our personal experiences in ways that we are unable to.  In the words of this poem, I find a powerful image of someone being stuck as a result of spending too much time thinking about where to start.  I sense feelings of wanting to have it all figured out and wanting to get it right.  And with that being said, I certainly understand why this poem has resonated so strongly with me.

It was not long ago that I wrote about graduating Teacher’s College and the uncertainty that was sure to follow.  A lot has changed since then, but the uncertainty is still there and it is sometimes easy to feel like I am running out of time to figure things out.  Anytime that I sarcastically comment that turning 26 somehow qualifies me for seniors discounts or that I should start considering my retirement options, my friends and family are quick to sweep in with reassuring narratives about their own lives that inevitably end with statements like “you have your whole life ahead of you” or “I had no idea what I was doing when I was your age”.  While I could sarcastically argue that it is impossible for a 26-year-old to have their whole life ahead of them, I certainly do not dispute their claims.  Deep down, I know that there is no external standard that should define the person that I am or the things that I do at any given point in my life.  I also know that I am not and never will be a completely finished person.

But, every once in a while, I let my own sarcasm get the best of me.  I know that I am not the only person who struggles with the challenge of defending myself against constant feelings that I am somehow supposed to have it all figured out by now.  We inadvertently create these narratives for ourselves in the way that we talk about the future.  If you had asked 13-year-old Nicole what she would be doing when she was 26, the answer would have involved some combination of being a journalist, researcher, philanthropist, wife, physiotherapist, police officer, teacher, and mother.  I grew up being told that I could be and would be the best at whatever I wanted to do.  It was great.  I had the world at my feet.  I felt empowered.

But with that empowerment and those big dreams comes a lot of pressure.  And it is sometimes easier to hide in the safety of doing nothing than walk out into the world and take a risk.  Personally, I tend to paralyze myself by feeling like I need to know exactly where I want to end up before trying something.  But, in the meantime, I stop taking chances because I fear that I may miss out on the one thing that I am supposed to be doing.  I realize that this may sound convoluted because, well, it is a pretty convoluted thought.  But simply put, it is sometimes just easier to stay in bed thinking about all of the people that I could be or the things that I could do than challenging myself to risk being or doing any of those things.

A friend once told me that the best way to deal with uncertainty is to embrace it and just allow your future to feel like a black hole.  And he was right.  But there is an important next step that is sometimes easy to forget about…

You eventually have to start moving.

Thinking in bed or staring at a black hole can only last for so long.  It is one thing to allow the future to be uncertain, but when that alarm goes off or you reach the edge of the black hole, it does not accomplish much to stare at the future in fear.  There comes a point when you need to take that next step.  And it might not be easy.  And you might go in the wrong direction for a while.  And you might just learn that there is more than one right answer.  But maybe focusing less on needing to have it all figured out is what allows us to open ourselves to learning from experience and discovering what it means to live meaningful lives surrounded by the people, places, and things that we care most about.

So, here is a challenge to myself and anyone else who might be feeling a little bit stuck in any aspect of life right now:  As childish as it may sound, listen to the words of this poem.  Take the time that you need to embrace the idea of uncertainty and think things through.  But don’t forget to get up, get out of bed, and put your feet on the ground.  You may not know exactly what you are doing or where you are going, but failing to start moving will only ensure that you never figure it out.  And you might just be missing out on a great adventure.

“Just in case you need it…”

Last night, I found myself waiting at the bus stop near my house in the bitter cold.  My hood was up, my head was down, and the only thought on my mind was whether or not it was worth it to slide my gloves off for long enough to check the arrival time of the next bus on my phone.

There was a man standing beside me who, while wearing a winter coat and hat, was visibly much colder than I was.  He paced back and forth in front of me and I kept my head down, still anxiously counting down the minutes until the next bus would arrive.  We eventually made eye-contact and I could tell that he was going to start talking to me. Admittedly, I was dreading the prospect of a conversation with a stranger in the cold (it is much easier to avoid the wind when you are staring at your shoes), but I did my best to smile politely and reply when he told me that the cold weather warning in Toronto had been lifted not long ago.  He continued pacing and I quickly returned to looking down at my feet.

A few minutes later, this man approached me again, returning to the topic of the cold weather warning in the city.  This time, he asked me whether or not I thought that the people who issue cold weather warnings ever have to spend much time out in the cold actually feeling what it is like to be outside for extended periods of time.  Once again, I smiled politely and replied.  But this time, I was in less of a hurry to go back to staring at the ground.  This man just wanted to chat and I was beginning to realize that there was no harm in that.

Our conversation continued over the next few minutes as we bounced to a few different topics, including recent lottery winners and what we might do if we were lucky enough to win the next Lotto 649 draw.  But finally, the bus pulled up and we parted ways to find empty seats.  My focus shifted back to how cold my hands and feet were and whether or not I was going to be on time to meet my friends downtown.

As the bus pulled into the subway station, this man stood up and walked towards the back exit of the bus where I was sitting.  He looked up at me, looked down into the bag that he was holding, and handed me a small package of tissues.

“Just in case you need it,” he said.

He sheepishly looked back down into his bag and mentioned that he had just picked up a bunch of these packages from the store and that I might need one given how cold it has been outside lately.  And with that, he exited the bus, walked into the station, and disappeared down the subway platform.

With the pack of tissues in hand, I boarded the train and felt almost completely overwhelmed by this seemingly insignificant act of kindness and moment of real human connection with someone who, just a few minutes before, I had been doing my best to ignore.  I took a seat on the train, pulled out my phone, and immediately began typing.  What I wrote was a point-form version of everything that I have shared here so far.  There was something about this moment that struck a chord with me and I desperately wanted to figure out what it was.  I thought that running through the moments of this encounter might help me to process my own reaction and maybe learn something at the same time.

Now, I realize that many people may shrug this off as an insignificant encounter or wonder why I felt the need to document this experience in such detail.  I mean, this is certainly not the first time that I have chatted with a total stranger on the bus or subway.  So, why exactly was I so overwhelmed by this short conversation and a small pack of tissues?

I have since decided against trying too hard to extract some sort of lesson from this experience that would allow me to retell the story with a well-packaged moral and purpose.  I have also decided against being too self-conscious of the fact that this interaction struck a chord with me in the profound way that it did.  Instead, I simply want to share this as an example of what I consider to be a moment of true human connection in a world where it is all too easy to feel disconnected.

Others may or may not take something from this.  To be honest, it really does not matter to me.  It could be that this is just my way of saying thank you to the man who forced me to look up from my feet and start looking at the world around me just a little bit differently.  Or perhaps I just needed to write this to remind myself that it is okay to be completely overwhelmed by the beauty of genuine human connection sometimes.  In the end, maybe this is just my way of reaching out to anyone reading this who could use a similar reminder.  If you happen to be one of these people, then this is for you… just in case you need it.

288 Days Later

Exactly 288 days ago, I started a journey at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.  Yesterday, I had the chance to walk across the stage at Convocation Hall with my Bachelor of Education degree in hand.

As I was doing some cleaning a few weeks ago, I stumbled across a notebook that I purchased during my first week of classes in September.  The cover is tea-stained and somewhat crumpled, but the first five pages are filled to the margins with writing.

The content of this notebook speaks for itself and, although I have never shared this with anyone before, today feels like a fitting occasion to revisit the words on those pages.

Here is the unedited text from that notebook:

September 11, 2012

Today is an absolutely gorgeous day in Toronto and I have been wandering around the UofT campus for the past hour and a half.  Actually, I consider it to be exploring more than wandering, mostly because it is quite neat to be able to see and discover places that I have never seen or discovered before.  Now I’ve found myself a spot on the patio outside the Arts and Science building, staring at a blank page in a blank notebook, not really knowing what to do with it, but also having an overwhelming feeling that I need to do something with it.

I stopped at the bookstore to buy this notebook because I left my English class this morning with my brain full of a thousand different thoughts and feeling almost embarrassingly excited and optimistic about my year ahead at OISE.  I’ve tried this whole keeping a journal thing before, but with very little success.  I’m almost convinced that this is because, for better or for worse, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and writing your thoughts on paper (and in ink) doesn’t leave much room for going back to fix spelling mistakes or reorganizing your thoughts afterwards to make sure they follow a somewhat logical train of thought.  That being said, I think a large part of me is starting to realize that there can be value in my thoughts, ideas, or perspectives, even if they are not perfect.  I’m not saying that I fully believe that about myself just yet, but I’m hoping that giving this journal a try will help me with that.  I want to use these pages to help me unpack the year ahead at OISE and what is going on around me in general.

Anyway, back to the real reason that I was inspired to sit down and write anything at all in the first place – OISE.  I’ve really only experienced Orientation Day and two classes, but I already feel more comfortable and at home in the classroom than I ever did during my undergrad at Western.  That’s not to say that my time at Western was not worthwhile or that I didn’t enjoy it, because I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything in the world, nor would I do anything differently if given the chance.  I think what I mean is that there is something to be said about the feeling that comes from knowing that you are getting something tangible out of the classroom and that you are a valuable member of a community.

I spent the majority of my time during undergrad thinking that my classes (for the most part) were interesting, but there were very few times that I thought to myself, “Yeah, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”  This is partially because I invested myself in extra-curricular activities more than school and partially because I never really had a plan for what I wanted to do with all this Biology and English knowledge after the exams were over and I had to enter “the real world” – but also because I never really trusted that I had anything to contribute to the classroom or felt like I had the opportunity to share my thoughts, hear from others, or really engage with whatever subject matter I was learning.

Within the first five minutes of hearing the OISE Dean speak on Orientation Day last week, I felt at home.  She didn’t necessarily say anything terribly profound, but just listening to her talk about the value of a good classroom teacher made me want to do everything possible to become one, because I finally felt like I had/have something to offer, as well as a lot to gain from my time at Teacher’s College this year.

Sitting in my TES class on Orientation Day and for our first class yesterday made me feel even more comfortable here.  I can’t remember the last time I was in a classroom setting and got to introduce myself personally or listen to others do the same.  I can’t remember the last time I really participated in class or small-group discussions and really learned from listening to the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of those around me.  I can’t remember the last time I put up my hand in class and felt validated by an instructors’ response.  None of this is to say that I have suddenly become arrogant or overly-confident (because I certainly hope that is not the case), but more to say that I finally feel comfortable just being me inside a classroom.

In my class this morning, I had a quick conversation with a girl about why she was excited about being in Teacher’s College.  Her answer was simple: “Because it feels like something that I can actually do.  I’m not going to quit.”  This resonated with me not because I have necessarily tried and failed at a lot of different things in terms of my academics or future career, but because it also perfectly describes how I feel after having felt a little lost throughout my post-secondary education.  Not only do I feel like I can do this, but also that I want to do this.

I can only hope that I’m not just looking at the year ahead through rose-coloured glasses for the time being and that this embarrassing amount of excitement isn’t just a passing feeling.  It’s a pretty cool feeling to be content with where you are and comfortable being who you are.

Admittedly, I never wrote in that notebook again.  That being said, I think the many binders, notebooks, and scrap pieces of paper currently stacked in my room are a testament to the fact that I have tried my best to “unpack” every moment of my experience this year in some way or another.  While it is safe to say that some of that “embarrassing amount of excitement” has worn off, I certainly do not need to look far to be reminded of why I began this journey in the first place.

When I walked through the doors of OISE for the first time in September, I expected to learn about how to be a teacher.  I expected to learn about the curriculum, lesson planning, and classroom management.  But this past year has turned out to be about so much more than just these things.  I have had the incredible opportunity to be part of a community of people dedicated to making education equitable and accessible.  I have been challenged to confront my personal biases and my identity as a teacher.  I have also learned more than I ever expected to learn about my own views of teaching and learning.

And while the past eight months have been filled with a lot of professional growth, I have also learned a great deal about myself personally.  I let myself fail harder this year than I have in a long time.  I learned how to admit when I was in over my head and I let myself be okay with not having all of the answers.  These were not easy lessons to learn, but I consider them to be among my most valued accomplishments.

I walked off the stage yesterday not knowing what I will be walking into next.  But I also walked off the stage knowing that there are a lot of opportunities in front of me at the moment and that it is up to me to make the most of them.  I think I always felt as though yesterday was supposed to be a destination – that one spot on the horizon that I had been looking forward to since the day that I made my decision to become a teacher.  But when I woke up yesterday, I realized that the act of walking across the stage was just another part of the journey.  I am far from being done with learning and growing, and I know that being a teacher is going to mean many different things throughout my life.  I may not know what I am going to see when I look back on my life 288 days from now, but I am trying to believe that this is just what makes the journey exciting.

Learning How to Land

There is something compelling me to write at the moment. I haven’t quite figured out what it is, but I simply feel like there is a story inside of me that needs to be told. I certainly do not feel this way because I believe that my thoughts are particularly important or that people need to read them. More than anything, I feel as though going through the process of telling my story is just another part of the story itself.

I am currently sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. I have spent every afternoon here after school for the past week. I spend my time here staring at my computer and typing without paying much attention to the words appearing on the screen. I have my headphones in and the same playlist of songs playing on repeat. As I let the words hit me, I find myself alternating between holding back tears and resisting the urge to walk outside and sprint down the street as fast as I possibly can.

In describing this scene, I realize that my behaviour may sound irrational or that I may appear to be rambling about nothing at all. Normally this would bother me, but I am going to go ahead and say that this is all just part of the story.

Over the past few weeks, I have felt incredibly and completely overwhelmed. However, in some strange way, I have also never been more aware of the things that are important to me. I may not know exactly what this means, but at this particular moment, I am open to trying to figure it out. I am also open to feeling without question and maybe even losing myself for a little while in the process. Regardless of why I am feeling this way, I am very aware of the fact that I need to allow myself to fully explore and experience my emotions, even when they are frustrating, uncomfortable, or heartbreaking.

It is very easy to run away from how we are feeling, but there is something to be said about allowing yourself to be completely overwhelmed in any given moment. As much as this can hurt, it is also a reminder that we are human. It is easy to be angry and it is easy to be scared when the world seems to be moving backwards, but I believe that true strength can be found by acknowledging that sometimes we need to crash so that we can eventually learn how to land.

By allowing myself to completely feel the way that I am feeling right now, I am beginning to realize that I cannot control the world around me. However, I can choose to focus on the things that make me happy and bring meaning into my life. I can also do my best to remember that life truly is about people. This means appreciating those who make each day brighter for others and challenge those around them to be better than they were the day before. It also means challenging myself to do the same.

As I alluded to earlier, there is something cathartic about narrating my experiences and allowing my thoughts to mean something. I know that learning how to land is not an easy process, but all I can do is take the time to try.