Deep Courage and Pink High Heels

I keep them handy as a reminder.

I keep them handy as a reminder.

Through most of my Life, no one in my world heard me. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me reiterate: NOT ONE HUMAN BEING. Hence my fondness for animals, but that’s another story…

Mostly, what they heard wasn’t what I was saying or doing. They were too busy trying to fix me to hear me (translate that as trying to make me into copies of them) and I hadn’t yet realized that most of what was “wrong” with me was the “wrongness” of trying to please them, which often resulted in caring more about the welfare of others than I did about my own.

On the surface, that doesn’t sound SO awful, does it? I mean, it’s good to be concerned about others, right? Throngs of children are taught this, either directly or indirectly.

Here’s the rest of that dynamic, though. In worrying about everybody else’s needs and in trying to keep them happy (translate that as trying to keep them from getting mad, especially at me, when things went wonky), I had no energy left to learn how to take responsibility for my own welfare. But I was super good at tending to theirs. All that made me look to them as if I knew stuff I didn’t know, so they’d lean heavily on me for support, and then I’d feel put upon and unappreciated. I heard them but I didn’t get heard. So I’d keep trying to get what I needed by being there for others.

It’s exhausting to write it down and it’s exhausting to read it.

Living it was NOT living.

I felt like a little girl masquerading as a grownup, sure that behind the facade of work and family life, my ruse would be found out when I tripped wearing pink high heels that were too big for me.

And of course, none of what I was trying to do was even possible, but it was what I’d been conditioned to do within my family, and I kept doing it until the cycle almost did me in.

Then I got help.

It’s satisfying now when another person hears me and doesn’t offer unsolicited suggestions for how I could be better. It co-creates a space for creativity when another person allows me to simply have my feelings and not act as if there’s inherent danger to feeling.

Yet, there are still those lonely moments when NO ONE hears me, when they can’t shut up, when they feel a need to encourage me. I still hate it when they try to fix me.

It’s lonely when all I need is a witness to where I am.

These moments call for deep courage, the kind of courage that’s a rich pink and vibrant and pointed—like those high heels I keep on the shelf as a reminder of where I’ve come from. Courage hears my own voice and trusts it, even when it whispers, “I don’t know.” Courage speaks the hidden into the light, even when no one else can see it.

They don’t know it, but deep inside myself, I’m beating their voices into silence with those pink heels.  I keep them handy.

~~~jmw

I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Dear Reader, you might not realize this, but I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to get acquainted with the legendary bringer of gifts.

I submit for your consideration three of these events.

The first account is second hand, but I’m positive that my source is reliable. It was the Christmas Eve when my husband, Gerry, was about seven years old and his entire family celebrated at his Uncle Richard’s house with a long night of festive eating, Rook and dominoes, and noisy visiting. Everyone was there: his mom and dad, his brother, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and cousins once-twice- three times removed, seeing as his dad had no siblings to provide first cousins.

The adults were still lingering at eleven p.m. when Gerry’s family headed to their house, knowing it was straight to bed for two little boys to wait for The Main Event: the Santa Claus visit.

Sitting in the back seat of the ’56 teal and white Chevy, they bounced along, nervous about forcing sleep to come and antsy with anticipation of the morning’s booty.

But something was amiss when Martin Whitehurst wheeled into the driveway. Through the living room window, the family saw their tinsel-wrapped cedar tree, radiant in the darkened house. The strings of bulbs, turned off upon leaving, were inexplicably glowing like a…like a…well, like a Christmas tree!

Gerry and his brother charged the front door as soon as his mom turned the key and there it was: beneath those electrically lit boughs, was evidence that the Whitehurst house had been one of Santa’s first stops in Alcorn County.

He had come! He had come! He had come! Wrapping paper and bows flew through the air and the boys stayed up the rest of the night, playing with gifts that are long forgotten.

What Gerry does remember to this day is his wonder at the unexpected lights of that tree and the thrill of Santa’s surprise visit.

Next there was the Christmas of 1963 when I was nine years old. In school, I’d been hearing chatter for a couple of years about the source of those presents under the tree. Doubt had set in strongly about reindeer and flying sleighs and jolly old elves and I was trying desperately to hold onto what seemed to be an impossible story.

And, then, miracle of miracles, it snowed for Christmas! A sparkling layer spread across the front yard, masking the dull grass, as I took a final look out the window before pulling a couple of quilts up over my shoulders and settling in for childhood’s age old Christmas Eve dilemma: try to sleep or try to stay awake?

Sleep won out.

All through the silent night, the inky sky shed its downy flakes across the yard, now looking like nothing so much as a frosty feather bed. Deep. Comforting. Quiet.

It was a silent night, that is, until I was awakened at three a.m. by the sound of sleigh bells coming from a source I couldn’t see. Oh, but I could hear them. Surely they must be outside. I peeped out the window and the snow was undisturbed, but the nearby sound of bells kept up. On the roof maybe? It was deeper than a jingle, a soft clatter, and I was certain that it was borne by eight reindeer shaking their heads, which meant…uh, oh, Santa Claus must be in the midst of delivering our gifts. Right that minute.

Back into bed, back under the quilts I dived, determined to stay put until daylight. My doubt might have been real but so was my practicality: I was taking no chances on disturbing Santa Claus before his job was finished.

The last sound I heard as sleep took me away was the brassy clanging of bells as the wind picked up and I could feel the shudder of the roof as the sleigh lifted off.

Finally, consider the evidence that continued into the next generation. When our son was young we had a parakeet named Pete. He was a messy but social creature, perking up especially when we walked in the door from wherever we’d been. It was the season of our lives when we were each absent from our house more hours than we were present, and we concluded that Pete was lonely. How we decided that we could assess avian moods, I have no clue, but we got concerned that Pete’s disposition was becoming as blue as his feathers.

On Christmas Eve we were at Gerry’s parents’ house for the traditional feast. If you knew Gerry’s mother, Mildred, you know that to call it a feast was an understatement. Seth opened gifts with his cousins and, while they played, we grown-ups opened ours and visited, going back for one more bite and one more bite. There was coffee and lingering over pecan pie and coconut cake.

It grew late. We had a boy to tuck into bed, so the gifts were loaded and home we went.

Home we went to a tree that was mysteriously aglow in the front window, when we were absolutely positive that we’d turned off its lights. Home we went to evidence under the tree that Santa Claus had once again made an early Christmas Eve visit to a Whitehurst home.

As the wrapping paper flew, ripped to shreds by a delighted little boy, Pete’s happy chirp played in the background. And then…a different chirp…two chirps at once? How could that be?
In the dash to the stash beneath the tree, Seth had hardly given Pete a glance. Now there was more than a passing look.

Alongside Pete, in a birdcage decked out with Christmas bows, sat a sunny yellow parakeet twittering contentedly. It seemed that Seth wasn’t the only recipient of gifts from Santa Claus.

Suddenly it was all perfectly clear: Santa had had to come early because transporting a tiny bird throughout the cold night, in a sleigh, wouldn’t be easy on the bird or old St. Nick, either. Of course, it made total sense.

Are these tales simply accounts of Santa Claus going about his annual business or are they the ramblings of wishful thinking? Maybe a hyperactive imagination? I’ll leave that to you to decide, Dear Reader, because, frankly, I’m still pondering it myself.

I only know that, over and over, in times of doubt and confusion, I have experienced an astonishment that touches my heart: a tender compassion that beckons as gently as the jingle of a sleigh bell, that cares if a little blue parakeet is lonely and that rejoices in the wonder of the unexpected.

And I have met the spirit of love that can wrap a scraggly cedar tree in electric lights and dare to call it beautiful, reminding me that the Light of Love, unforeseen and inexplicable, shines brightest in the darkest night.

If Old Saint Nick has come to be tied up in all of that, then — Ho! Ho! Ho! — I do indeed know him very well.

Maybe you do, too.

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Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and counselor located in Alcorn County, Mississippi. She contributes columns to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com.

This column was printed in a slightly edited version in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 16,2014, because—no matter how many times she proofs it— when Jaylene sees a column in print, she sees what needs tweaking. Enjoy!

Kindergarten: Little Eyes Need Resting Spaces

This column was in today’s Daily Corinthian newspaper. With their permission, I share it here.

When I sat down to begin fumbling round with words this morning, I was certain about where this column would begin, if not exactly sure what direction it would take.
Before I settled in with my coffee and key board, though, I took a minute for a quick Facebook check. Maybe you know how that goes? So much for my planned column. My dear friend Donna, a middle school librarian with a passion for all things educational, had shared a link to a New York Times blog that snagged me and completely derailed my plans.
You might want to check out Jan Hoffman’s blog for yourself. Here’s the link to her entry, Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom. You read that right. Is it possible that the colorful room is not the best option for learning? Maybe it’s not, especially for children who already have trouble focusing. It’s a thought provoking read for teachers, parents, and anyone interested in early childhood: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/rethinking-the-colorful-kindergarten-classroom/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

When I realized that I’d high jacked Donna’s Facebook thread with three lengthy comments, I knew I had the beginning of an unexpected column, one that I was hesitant to dive into because education is not my background. I’ve never been a classroom teacher.
What I am, however, is an artist and counselor, an explorer of the differing ways in which we process this experience of being human. I’m curious about and attuned to the impact of our surroundings on how we function in the world. Most significantly, I’m the parent of a former student who struggled throughout his school years with staying focused and completing tasks.
The blog snagged me because I’ve thought about the very questions raised in the studies Ms. Hoffman references. I wondered about them when my son was in school, but I never raised them. I lacked the confidence to bring this up to the professionals and, I suppose, I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.
As if it were today, I can still hear my young son saying, “Mama, I don’t mean to but I see everything. I can’t help it. There’s so much going on.” It’s no wonder this gripped me.
Ms. Hoffman discusses a study of whether the colorful and highly decorated classrooms that have become typical of kindergarten could, in reality, be hindering learning due to the visual distraction, rather than encouraging it. Many classrooms are brightly colored, some decorated with commercially produced posters and educational material, frequently changing bulletin boards, and colorful borders (you know the ones that are corrugated and scalloped and have been around forever). Lots of color, lots of pattern, lots of texture.
It’s a big business. Design-wise, it’s also a lot of busy-ness.
There’s pressure on teachers about how classrooms should look. Parents may walk in with expectations about the ideal learning environment. Fellow educators may not understand the teacher who opts to provide a less intense atmosphere for students. I’ve thought about what it would be like to be that teacher whose room was more sedate. How is that teacher perceived by colleagues and parents?
This is from the blog entry Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom:
In the early years of school, children must learn to direct their attention and concentrate on a task. As they grow older, their focus improves. Sixth graders, for example, can tune out extraneous stimuli far more readily than preschoolers, the study’s authors noted.
But could information-dense kindergarten classroom walls, intended to inspire children, instead be overwhelming? Could all that elaborate décor impede learning? Some experts think so.
“I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, ‘Don’t buy this, it’s visually damaging for children!’ ” said Patricia Tarr, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who researches early childhood education and art education, and was not involved in the study.
Dr. Tarr has long railed against the notion of “decorating” a classroom. In a 2004 paper called “Consider the Walls,” published in Young Children, the journal for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she argued that classrooms could become so cluttered with commercial posters and mobiles that they obscured the children’s own drawings and writings, posing special challenges to any child with attention deficits.
Over the years, as a parent and with various jobs I’ve had, I have walked into classrooms that had so much visual activity that it set me, an adult, on edge. Bright primary colors dominated. Complementary colors (those that are opposite on the color wheel) naturally make each other “pop” more intensely, so they compete for attention. My eyes felt the strain.
Admittedly, I’m a bit distractible myself, given my quick shift of column topic this morning, but my ability to regulate my response to the stimuli is more mature than a five or six year old. If the visual energy made me edgy, I wondered how a little person could possibly concentrate.
No one wants totally colorless classrooms, though. That would be trading one extreme for another; it’s not even realistic.
From my perspective as an artist, the key consideration is simply the fact that the eye seeks out spaces to rest. In design, whether in a painting or a classroom, the negative space (the open area) provides this necessary visual rest. When there is pattern and color everywhere, it actually becomes more chaotic and less visible. A design stands out precisely because of the space around it. We can see it more easily when resting space sets it apart.
Thinking back to the classrooms I was in at West Corinth Elementary, I pulled out my class pictures to be sure my memory was accurate. There were bulletin boards, pictures of presidents, writing guides, flip charts, and the like. Most rooms had at least a couple of potted plants. The pictures and charts were few but good quality; there was a sense of continuity and a lack of clutter, especially as the year began. I knew that kids before me had sat under that same portrait of George Washington, and that in three years my little brother would too. I wouldn’t have thought of any of my classrooms as austere. Maybe they were or maybe they simply had enough resting space. I called what they had a sturdy warmth.
One of my earliest art experiences was getting to help put up bulletin boards and then later being allowed to design and post them by myself. Our drawings and class projects were proudly displayed and visible. As the year progressed, more of our work accumulated. Our progress was in view, easily seen. By the time I left each room at year’s end, it had become partly mine. I carry my investment in those early learning spaces with me still.
Natural light flooded our space from windows that rose almost to the ceiling. Those windows opened onto a naturally shifting scene. Seasonal and subtle. They’re the display I remember most.
That was another time. A time before lamination and die cuts, back when the mimeograph ruled and stomachs knotted up on test day.
There have been changes to how classrooms look since the 1960s, but stomachs still knot up. Children still take with them beyond their school years the images from their classrooms; they carry the emotions that they felt as they succeeded or didn’t, as they belonged or didn’t. Teachers still put more into the sacred task of teaching than seems humanly possible.
May our young children and grandchildren learn in surroundings with enough to interest them and not so much as to distract them. May they have space where their unique contributions to the classroom are seen and celebrated, where they feel valuable, and where the unfolding process of learning is the liveliest decoration.
May each classroom be a living work of art.
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To the teachers in our community, may you have an enjoyable summer break. You’ve earned it.