Experience of Place

For the past thirty-six summers, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to wander and travel around the country – our beautiful diverse country: mountains, plains, deserts, and coastlines. Most summers are now spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the rocky coastline of Maine.  This year is different.  Very different.  This year is a summer of home and schoolwork. As I look towards the fall, I yearn for those wondrous summer places.  I look back at photographs and remember.

Place is so important to an individual’s identity.  It shapes so much of who we are and who we choose to become. Right after college, I worked in a small publishing firm in New York City.  It was there that I became familiar with Roger Hart’s work on psychological geography and his book Children’ s Experience of Place, a study of eighty-six children in a small town in Vermont and their playtime experiences. (You can listen to Roger Hart’s interview with Ira Glass on This American Life – Act Three: “The Geography of Childhood”). Almost every child had a secret outside hiding place where he could discover new things and imagine. Hart explains how important it is for children to explore freely to develop a sense of self and strong identity.

When I became a classroom teacher, I brought that sense of wonder to the children I taught.  I carefully and deliberately brought their attention to the world around them whether I was teaching reading, writing, social studies, or mathematics. No matter where I taught, the children and I would go out exploring our environment.  In the suburban school, we fished in the river near our school and set up a fish tank with the creatures we captured: tadpoles, minnows, and an eel. In the city school, we adopted trees in Central Park measured their circumference to determine their height and sketched them throughout the seasons. We wrote a letter to the Parks Commissioner with a plan to help the trees on our school’s street to grow.  The children began to see themselves as integral to their environment. And I began to notice the social and emotional affects the outdoors made on children.  They became less stressed, more curious, and definitely more confident.  One parent wrote me at the end of the school year thanking me for all I had done. This was not the first thank you letter I had received, but it was the first letter I received that thanked me for teaching her child how to climb a tree.  This parent understood how important a child’s connection to his surroundings could be.  And that shy, hesitant boy left his third-grade year feeling brave and able to meet any challenge. 

The most profound experience I have had with how the environment fosters a child’s sense of place was when I was a 2nd grade teacher.  One of my students, Brianna, was exceptionally shy and displayed signs of selective mutism.  She spoke in barely audible whispers and continually hunched her shoulders and ducked her head.  I spent the year trying my best to bolster her self-esteem and encourage her to take small risks.  She remained mostly silent.  That is until one spring day when we went on a field trip to a local farm.  We were taking a tour and visiting all the farm animals.  Our guide gathered the children in a circle and asked for a volunteer to gather eggs from the chickens.  To my surprise and delight, Brianna raised her hand.  I caught the guide’s eye and motioned for him to pick Brianna.  He did and handed her a basket.  Brianna bravely skipped to the chicken coop and went in.  Immediately, she came running back without any eggs and her head bowed. 

I walked over to her and said, “You were so brave to volunteer.  Do you want me to go with you and we will gather the eggs together?” 

She nodded her head and we turned around quickly towards the coop.  It was dark and musty and smelled like chickens. I was going to model for Brianna how to reach under the chicken and grab an egg, but all of a sudden I had an amazing realization.  I was absolutely terrified to put my hand under a pecking chicken! 

I expressed this aloud:  “Oh my goodness.  This is scary.  I hope she doesn’t peck me.  I don’t want to do this, but I want the egg.  Okay…  I’m going to do it…  Don’t peck me… Here I go…  Oh, it’s so warm…  I have it!” 

All the while, Brianna began to giggle and then laugh loudly.  I looked at her and smiled.

“Do you want to gather the next one with me?” I asked. Brianna giggled and nodded.  I put my hand over her hand, and together we picked another warm, brown-speckled egg. We put them in the basket and walked out of the coop into the spring sunshine.

Brianna ran ahead shouting, “We gathered two eggs.  Mrs. Emery was so scared.  She was so funny!”

From that day on, Brianna chattered easily with me and her classmates.  Taking that one risked changed everything for her, and it taught me the power of place, how interactions with nature can truly heal.

That was many years ago. I’ve heard from colleagues that Brianna grew up to become an actress.  And when I think of her, I smile and remember that spring day when we gathered eggs together.

Often my poems express that connection between the natural world and human identity. Now that I’m stationary this summer, I use my backyard and our surrounding parks for solace.  I know these days of August are precious, and I intend to keep wandering close to home.

Camouflage

The dark-eyed junco

Flits under the thorny

Brambles and black mulch,

Her blue-black body

Camouflaged among

The twisted branches,

She is well hidden

Only her sharp, quick

Movements betray her.

How many years have I been

Sitting on awkward hands,

Head bowed wishing,

Wishing to be hidden?

If I could make my body

Small enough, dark enough

I could hide away and

Be forgotten.

The dark-eyed junco

Perches on tender branch,

Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,

Contemplates the summer green,

Her white tail feathers flash

As she takes off

Into the cloud-filled sky,

Daring to be fearless

Suddenly, she’s gone.

Dandelion

Your golden head rises

Out of the rusty rubble

Just another weed –

You push your way out

Between cracks in the sidewalk

Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass

You grow strong –

Impervious to your surroundings

Your leaves, jagged toothed

Spread green along the old gray ground

You are not discouraged –

You’ve never depended

Upon rain or fertilizer

You provide your own sunlight.

Every child needs a champion.

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. This is mine: Every child needs a champion.  As the world seems to be spinning off its axis, this statement is especially true.  Children need champions – people who help them feel safe, cultivate their curiosity, and instill hope.  I became a teacher because I wanted to be a champion for young people.  I have been blessed that I have been able to do this important work for the last forty-two years. So blessed.

But I am by far not the only one. Rita Pierson was an energetic, dynamic, educator, who spoke passionately about being a teacher champion.  Her TED Talk – Every Kid Needs a Champion – is so inspiriting.  She exclaimed, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possible be.” As I listened to her speak, I nodded my head in agreement.  Yes, yes, yes, that is such a powerful statement!  I believe that connection is the strongest foundation we can provide to students and their parents.  When building that connection during my years of teaching, I was never disappointed; it always paid off – parents trusted and students blossomed.  Rita quoted Dr. James P. Comer, Associate Dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Comer stated that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  Comer developed the School Development Program (SDP) model that helps teachers understand the link between development, academic learning and the preparation of students for adult life.  Rita explained, and I can attest to the fact that, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.  I purposefully created positive connections with my students, making them and their own learning my central focus for the year, and sometimes that focus would last many, many years.  I am still in contact with some students I’ve taught over thirty years ago.  It is so rewarding to see them grow into happy and creative adults. 

This approach is what I call an “I SEE YOU” mindset, a term taken from Leon Logothetis, who created the Netflix series, The Kindness Diaries.  I had the opportunity to hear Leon speak in person this winter, pre-COVID.  He was so inspiring.  What struck me was his one true sentiment: “As a kid I felt very disconnected.  I felt very depressed.  I felt no sense of purpose and to be quite honest, I didn’t feel seen at all.” Despite that, Leon grew up to become a successful London broker. Although he had financial success, he continued to feel unmotivated and depressed. Leon decided to turn in a new direction. He quit his job and began to travel all over the world connecting with people through the sheer simple act of kindness. His life work is now to talk about the importance of connection. He attests that human interactions have an amazing healing power.  Throughout his presentation, I cried – because he would look out into the crowd, and I swear he was looking right at me, and he could “see” who I was.  I know it seems preposterous, but I instantly felt connected and inspired.  Kindness was a tenet I knew well, and it was affirming to be reminded of its importance.

Early in my life, I was lucky to have a champion.  He was my maternal grandfather, Charlie. He was the model of quiet, caring and unconditional love.  Charlie looked after me full-time when my mother made the decision to go back to school to become a teacher.  I spent wonderful long days at my grandfather’s house.  He never once got impatient.  He was a tall man with a soft deep voice, and he always, always expressed how much he loved me.  He told me all the things I was good at doing, and he helped me to learn things I did not yet know.  I didn’t have to be anything or anyone else.  I was me, and Charlie let me know that that was enough.  It is those experiences with Charlie that shaped me as a teacher.  He was an incredibly strong and positive role model. I was fortunate to have him in my life, even if it was for just a short time.  That short time made its mark indelibly on my heart and my path in this world.

Breakfast of Champions

According to Grandpa Charlie,

The breakfast of champions

Consisted of black coffee,

Rye toast and butter,

And a soft-boiled egg

In a mint green egg cup –

Tap, tap, tap..

He sliced off the top of the egg,

Dipped his spoon into the golden goo

And smiled.

Looking over at me

Above his dark rimmed glasses,

Grandpa handed me a tall glass of Tang,

The astronaut’s orange juice,

Two soft-boiled eggs –

Chop, chop, chop…

He crumbled buttered saltine in a small white bow,

The delicate rim decorate

With petite blue flowers and a tiny chip.

Grandpa turned the smooth side toward me,

Pushed it gently across the table,

Then he returned to his newspaper,

As I took an inventory of the kitchen:

Trying to remember every warm inch,

Then I’d take account of the textures and flavors

On my spoon: salty, sweet, crunch, smooth –

We’d sit together reading, thinking, eating,

Just an old man and his granddaughter

Starting the day off right.

Red Plaid Hunting Cap

The cold’s set in,

My grandfather shrugs on

His heavy red plaid hunting jacket,

Pulls on the matching cap,

And take my small mittened hand.

We head out the door

And walk towards town.

Grandpa points periodically

To the broken sidewalk,

So I won’t trip.

This is our morning walk

To buy the paper or milk,

Or a crusty loaf of bread,

Down tree-lined streets

We go hand in hand.

Watermelon Summer

On a hot summer night,

Fireflies float through the yard

Like stars you can hold in your hand.

A large, wooden table

Is set under the willow tree

And the big, green-striped

Melons lie ready, waiting.

As Grandpa Charlie slices

Thick, red wedges.

Eager hands grab two at a time,

Soon the table is covered

With sticky, pink juice.

Seven cousins sip and slurp,

Tossing rinds into a pile,

Spitting the shiny, black seeds

At each other and laughing,

The sweetness of summer

Dripping from our chins.

Too Soon Taken

When I was seven

Charlie died.

I still don’t understand

How and why he died.

Too soon take from us –

He was my superhero,

He was my champion,

I was his curly-head Josephine,

His beloved granddaughter.

All these long years

I’ve missed him,

Glimpses of memory

Float by like wispy dreams,

I try to hold one –

Thick, shining silver hair,

Large, rough gentle hands,

Quiet love,

My eternal protector.