By Friday afternoon the children in my class are ready to unwind. “You’ve worked hard all week,” I tell them, “so I am giving you a couple of days off.” After assembly we pack our bags. It is quite a process teaching 24 children to do this all at once without chairs flying everywhere or things being left behind. At the beginning of the year I taught them the drill and drew it on the whiteboard, step-by-step. Visual clues, so that I wouldn’t wear my voice out repeating the process.
Bag on table
Pouch in bag
Hat on head
Bag on back
Chair on table
Finger up for a sticker if your name made it to the chart!
It is nearly the end of term now and all I have to say is “Let’s get packed and ready to go home” and they are off, no need for a reminder. Okay, maybe a few reminders. Some kids don’t get it at all; but this is okay because the kids that do get it have learned to look out for the ones that don’t and somehow, like a family, we get it together and make it out the door.
The quicker this goal is achieved, the more time we have to sing, or read a story or play a game. On Friday afternoon we have a tradition. Sitting on the floor, leaning against their bags as though they are on poolside recliners, we read the big book. I love the big book because it is a wonderful opportunity for the children to engage with the text as well as the pictures. I remind them that they can read now and so they must help me with the story. Mostly they can’t read but they don’t know that. The repetition of the story, the clues in the pictures, the rhythm of the words, the chorus of all the other voices, convinces almost all of them that it is fine to have a go.
Every now and then we stop to discuss the punctuation. Do they know what that funny upside down shaped ‘i’ is? “It’s a surprise,” they tell me. Do they know about the question mark? “It’s a clue,” they respond. They are guessing; but sometimes we need to do a whole lot of guessing before we figure life out. It is all just part of the learning process. We get there in the end and, like the comma in the middle of it all, we discover opportunities to breathe. I’m terrible when it comes to commas. I litter them everywhere when I write. Even when I am not sure whether one belongs or not, I decide to add one too many rather than one too few. Over the past few years I’ve discovered that breathing is everything, even when you have no idea what comes next.
I’m in that place right now. The ‘I don’t know what comes next phase.’ Try explaining quotation marks to children and why sometimes it’s two little sixes and two little nines and why at other times it is only one of each. I figure that sometimes, some things don’t need to be explained all at once. Sometimes you don’t need the full explanation. Sometimes it is enough to say that it is just the way it is and that later on it will all make sense. Mostly the children are happy with that and by daylight, I am happy with that too. It isn’t until after dark falls and the possum lands on the corrugated roof and the dog begins to bark that I find myself upright, afraid and wishing for a glimpse into tomorrow. That is when a million conversations start to play in my head and all the voices are my own, rolling around ideas, replaying the scenes and trying to remember what life used to be like before my daughter got cancer. If I hadn’t kept decades worth of journals, I don’t think I could possibly recall what life was like back then, nor what my dreams used to be, nor who I spent my time with, nor how we celebrated life.
In just over two years it seems that almost my entire life has changed. I have discovered that my life is fragile like paper: thin, worn and easily torn. I have learned that it is almost impossible to stand alone and that sometimes the person to my right and the one to my left are not the ones I expected to be there. I have been happy to be sandwiched between the leaves of many pages and strongly bound into the covers of people who were willing to protect me, to stand with me and to be committed to the story that I never wanted to record. This story is not the story I ever expected to tell 23 years after my first-born child lay cradled in my arms. Yet this is my story. This is my life. Slowly it takes shape.
Maybe like me, you look at the book in your hand, which is your life, and it seems rather insignificant. Maybe it is lifeless, or dull. Perhaps the pictures didn’t come out in quite the tone you were expecting or the story pains you to tell. Perhaps the story you wanted for your life is in someone else’s hands or maybe there is someone else that is doing the thing that you once wanted to do more than anything else.
Maybe after all the tears, all the trudging along hallways, or the early morning risings with the clouded thoughts; after watching your face in the mirror of the morning, as the steam finally vanishes into the vent, you stare at this person who used to be you. The dreams seem to have vanished with the fog of the hot shower that barely even woke you. You manage to stay fixated anyway on the bags that are sagging under your eyes that used to be bright and full of promise.
Maybe you think it is too late for you? Maybe a little bit of you drowned while you were fighting to hold everyone else’s head above the water level. Maybe for you it seems like all hope is gone, that you are too old to dream now, or try to start again, or to take a new course or develop that gift that weighs like lead on your soul because you want it so much. Then you think about the children, sitting there in front of you, ready to participate in the story, ready to help you with the words they know, and bouncing on the spot with the rhythm of the reading. You picture it all, the magnificent power of the narrative and even though life feels like it has been way too big to squeeze between the pages of a book, you suddenly discover that there is nothing else you want to do more than this – to write your story down into a book and maybe, just maybe, it will change someone’s life.
Just out of view you see the silhouette of the young child who is gifted at reading, the one who understands words beyond his years. Every Friday he has become the page-turner, helping you to hold this enormous book, pre-empting when it is time for the page to turn. He reminds you that sometimes books are too big for just one person to carry; but that shouldn’t stop a story from being told.
Then one Friday afternoon, there you are, all caught up in the very big book, and the voices of the children. It is as wonderful as breathing and almost second nature. It has always been amongst your favourite things, to read out loud. Then, without warning, you recognise the woman in the story and you discover you are no longer the one who is reading the book. Somehow in the slipstream of life, or the rhythm of the words, you’ve been sucked in. You are not the one who is in control anymore. Instead you are the woman who swallowed the fly and you don’t know why. It’s been years now (well two at least) and you’ve done everything you possibly could. You’ve taken it all in your stride, you’ve taken on more, you’ve hoped that in some way all those additional things might stop the spider wiggling and jiggling; but it is still there. Though your capacity for big things has grown, you look at the cow and you don’t know how you can stomach another really big thing.
You look into the blue eyes of the small child who is helping you hold it all together. You make a silent exchange because you both believe that there will be another Friday and another big book. Then as you close the covers and the kids line up to go home for their two days off, you decide that it has to end with the cow. You are thankful for all the ways you have grown these past few years; but the time has come to write a different story.