NATURE CHANGES AT THE SPEED OF LIFE . . .
By Kathleen Raine
Nature changes at the speed of life
From moment to moment, so that all,
Bird, leaf and tree seem still, seem real, until
We glimpse the conjurer at play --
A dandelion's evanescent sphere
Created itself, between yesterday and today
Came, was, and is over, while I
Marvel at that unseen geometer's skill
Who builds the transcience where we dwell.
* * *
Several weeks ago we joined a local homeschooling group that meets regularly at a park in the heart of St. Louis. They meet beneath a pillared pavilion which looks out onto a large meadow. I have been in this park many times before, but it was not until I stood under this pavilion that I really understood the intentionality behind its landscaping, obviously designed to be seen from that very spot. The trees are all positioned symmetrically, giving the park a grand and formal quality which to me is atypical of the American landscape. But lest I imagine myself somewhere else, somewhere foreign, the circus-like colors of the pavilion and the telltale St. Louis humidity that casts a haze on the whole scene somehow bring me back firmly to the Midwest. On the other side of the pavilion is a large stone fountain and shallow pool for wading and splashing. This fountain area is also more pretty and formal-looking than a typical, strictly utilitarian city splash pad. I have never seen it empty and the energy level always feels high. This area is usually very crowded with people representing a wide range of skin colors, ages, and lifestyles. All of this feels very urban, and yet strangely blanketed by the larger expanse of this huge park where one can find solitude and a sparse area any day of the week and where parking a car is never a problem. St. Louis is still something of the strange paradox that I felt it to be when I was still just a visitor over a year ago. I am still working on integrating this most-American--yet strangely different-from-America-- city with my already-established notions of America.
At this park I always feel that my children are safe as long as I can see them, and I can always see them from quite a long way away. This affords them the sense of freedom to behave as if they are traveling in a band of underage, unsupervised renegades-- something I happen to believe is very healthy for them. The children in the homeschooling group seem happy, open, flexible, and imaginative, but of course I am probably biased. On our first visit to the group they politely accepted the adults' perfunctory introductions to these two new girls and then immediately and seamlessly went back to some imaginary game involving branches (some rather hefty with leafy boughs still intact) and lots of running. My girls were accepted into the game seamlessly, and this made me really happy. I sat with the mothers on blankets, most of whom were knitting something, and perceived immediately that I was among a group of introverts who would be pleasant company but also take a long time to get to know. All of that is fine with me. I am not in any position to be critical or overly picky. I know that my girls and I will absolutely need this group if we are going to do homeschooling so I am determined to become an authentic part of it, whatever it requires.
Public schools in our district started on Tuesday. In a not-entirely-unconscious desire to convince myself I was not being left behind in a cloud of dust at the starting line--a motive which is grossly inconsistent with the philosophy which undergirds the very foundations of homeschooling--I began doing our lessons on Monday. More practically, I decided to start for the good of my sanity, because I needed to bring the prospect of homeschooling out of the realm of prospect. The prospect of homeschooling was making me anxious. Now that we are actually doing it, I still feel some anxiety, but with the added comfort of concrete causation. The week held some wonderful, affirming moments and also some not so affirming moments. Our first attempt at a math lesson did not go over terribly well, and I have been re-thinking ways to approach math, usually at midnight, when I should be falling asleep. Language arts has been, not surprisingly, a cake walk all around. For social studies our curriculum begins with Ancient China and we made a mask out of white gauze impregnated with plaster which turned out to look quite creepy before the final phase of decoration-- a fact which my six year-old did not seem to notice, and which I did not point out. And I was not entirely sure how the mask (loosely related to a folk tale about a traditional Chinese festival) would serve to further a child's understanding of a topic as vast and huge as Ancient China.
We reviewed a large number of word families-- the IT words, the IN words, and on and on. On paper I thought this looked like a tedious exercise, but it actually turned out to be very fun because it sparked many interesting conversations about words in general, and especially words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Been, for example, is not a member of the IN family like bin. Some of these conversations happened while swinging at the park, which I thought was pretty cool, like something that could be used for a promotional pamphlet about homeschooling.
But I suppose what I am already coming to realize is that teaching is going to be about establishing points of reference that will, little by little, be filed into a broad mental folders with labels like "China," and that the teacher has to trust that the child will accumulate enough materials in that folder over time to amass some depth of understanding for that subject. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the fact that a child is just starting out in the world, and not only knows nothing about China, but does not even have a category for it in place. And so we embark. I considered it a success when, at the very least, my daughter ran to get the globe and show her dad where China was when he came home in the evening-- the globe that, incidentally, broke off from its metal axis a long time ago and has been rolling around our homeschooling room like petrified beach ball.