Part 1 – A Confession
Cold snowy day in early January.
I bring four paperwhite (narcissus) bulbs into our pre-service teacher education literacy class. Around the circle, hand-to-hand, crinkling brown dry skin invokes language while fingers point to tiny white shoots already emerging, whispering a promise of a plant to (be)come.
I did have a lesson plan.
Cleverly hoping to provoke a conversation about how a growing bulb is a narrative, and thus, how life itself is a story, my intention was to explore the ways these bulbs with their creative, generative and natural power, would stand as an example of a gift to us in our classrooms with children. I wanted to explore the ways that they would give us all the language we need, how we didn’t need to be ‘creative’ or make ‘fun’ activities or worksheets, because these bulbs would themselves engage us deeply and creatively. Drawing something forth from us. From life.
The next week I carry the vase to our seminar, bright green shoots already six inches high, and two inches of roots pressed stretching against the glass below the bulbs. Shocked delight as I walk through the door: “Are those our bulbs from last week!?”
Despite the chatting and whispering as the bulbs were passed, there is some puzzlement. Some students are silent. As they describe their experiences of holding the bulbs, several share that they have never seen or touched a bulb before, except as food. Onions and garlic, they say. Our conversation doesn’t seem to go very far or perhaps anywhere at all. The lesson plan’s not working out. We explore some picture books. Later that day I plant the bulbs in rocks and soil in a glass vase, water them, and put them in the window of my office.
The vase gets passed and passed again. Hand to hand to hand.
Another week passes.
Through the classroom door I carry the vase, the plants now 15 inches high.
Gloriously flowering fragrant white blossoms. I place the vase on the table.
Are those OUR bulbs? The ones from 2 weeks ago?
And then laughter.
How did that happen?! I had no idea! I thought it would take them until June to flower! I thought they would be so boring!
Again, the vase passes hand to hand around the tables in our windowless stuffy classroom. Noses bent close to the blossoms.
I am stopped.
Uneasiness interrupts serene lesson plan flows.
This image: Faces bowed over the vase.
This image: Breathing.
This image: Me, the teacher, piling reading after reading after work upon work on them for what after what?
Was the breathing not enough? Was the living experience of these growing bulbs not enough for us to contemplate together? And then the moment passed. The danger of it becoming just another ‘activity’ or “learning object” in our rush to the future was very real.
Part 2 – The time of the institution
What does it mean to live well in this place, now? The word now hangs on the end of the question, positioning the question not only materially in place, but also in time. Other time-bound questions might arise: What is most urgent? What matters most right now? What is the right thing to do for this child, for this planet, for ourselves, for this place?
Educational institutions are almost always rushing ahead of themselves. The industrial, capitalist line of time we unconsciously dwell in much of the time marches us into the future at a furious and inhuman pace, consuming our lives with its promises of progress and forward motion. Stealing the time of the present. We are always rushing but never arriving. A grueling line. A grueling life. I am tired. In The World We Have, Thich Naht Hanh (2008) suggests that we have become both victims and slaves to this time.
Competition, measurement, bottom lines, accountability. Preparing for the future overwhelms. Distracts. Imprisons. Enslaves.
We forget what we are. We forget when we are. We forget where we are.
Part 3 – Teacher (Preparation) Education
The students lash out at me, angry that I (we) haven’t taught them enough. They do not feel ready for the future. They do not feel they know enough. They do not feel prepared. I am not teaching them what they feel I am supposed to. They sense something coming: That time they will be in their own classroom and not know what to do. How can I tell them that they do not know yet what they will need to know then? It’s an impossibility. A koan.
Prepare stems from the combination of two Latin words, ‘pre’ meaning before or ahead of time, and ‘parare’, meaning to make ready. Thus to ‘pre-pare’ literally means to make ready in advance of something happening.
Might the proper pedagogical question be what is it that we are getting ready for in advance?
Part 4 – The Paperwhite’s Lesson (Plan):
The deep green stems of those paperwhites are now thick and strong and 18 inches tall. Thousands of tiny white roots wrap themselves around the bottom of the glass vase. The blossoms reach towards the hermetically sealed window in my office that separates them from the elements, away from the fluorescent lights, towards the real sunlight that gives them energy and life. The paperwhites have a sense of belonging – and it is not in this place.
I am a slow learner but I realize now that the paperwhites have become the teacher and are offering up their own pedagogical wisdom.
The scent of the delicate white blossoms is not delicate, soft or subtle. It greets me as the elevator doors open to the hall. In my office it overpowers, overwhelms, almost too much to bear in this small space.
My senses are opened.
My senses are opened.
I become aware of my breath.
In this breath, we are present to the paperwhites, and so present to the breath of the planet. A brief inhaled moment of potential awakening. Can we hold ourselves here?
The awareness of breath is the heart of meditative practices. Aware of the senses, waking up to the world. Conscious of our bodies, of this place, of this time.
Being here. And here again.
The miracle of the bright green of the stems and leaves is the power of the sun to transform a seed into food, to exhale the breath of life. The strong white roots remember participation in these great cycles of flowing water for over four billion years. This miracle calls forth a mutuality. A common planet. A common breath.
The paperwhite is not worried about or planning for the future. It is alive right now. It is living in its own time, which is the only time there is. The only relationship we can have with it is in the time we share – which is the time we are living in now. The paperwhite cannot be in some other time or some other place. It can only be right here. Where it is. Now.
The flower is not afraid. It is not rushing around, nor is it wasting time. It is not filled with wishful thinking. It does not perform to a specific standard at a specific time. It is not in the future.
Might we hold the life of the paperwhite, still, in our hearts?
Might we hold our own lives and the lives of our students, still, in our hearts?
The time and the body of the earth, still, in our hearts?
With this plant we might learn to wait. We cannot hurry it. It is teaching about change and inevitability. It is not anxious that it won’t be ready in advance for what is coming. We do not need to prepare it the way we think to prepare children in kindergarten to survive grade one, or prepare children in elementary school for junior high. We wouldn’t ever talk this way about this plant, so why about children? Why about pre-service teachers?
We might experience joy in its growing. In our care for it. In our embodied and sensual experience of the miracle of its very life. Of the way it becomes taller each day, the pods containing blossoms ready to burst. And then one day, there they are.
We trust that the flower will know what to do.
The paperwhites might bring the life force of all other plants to mind, unveiling a relationship of profound interdependence that requires awareness and care of much more than our own concerns, that invokes a true and real accountability that can never be measured. That invokes a love for life itself, for the continuance of life on this planet including that of our own species. This concern is also for ourselves and those who are with us, sharing this time, sharing this place.
The paperwhite is a mystery and a miracle. It cannot ultimately be known through any amount or method of study. It has its own subjectivity. And yet our intimate shared breath reminds that we are not and cannot be separate from this plant, as separate egos going through life without ‘accountability’ to, in Buddhist terms, ‘interbeing’, or in ecological terms ‘intermingling,’ with other life forms and beings through time. It is here and now that the future emerges, whether we are awake or not.
And just as surely as these bulbs sprouted three weeks ago when gifted sunlight and water, this cycle will soon end. The paperwhites will teach the narrative of all life, about the rhythms and cycles, beginnings, endings, renewals and decay in which we also participate.
The paperwhite cannot stop this process.
It just is.
It is being. Being itself.
Being a paperwhite, moment by moment.
Quietly breathing the infinite universe.
Part 5 – Coda
Breath of water. Wind of life. Reaching for the sun in these windowless classrooms. Around the circle, hand-to-hand, crinkling brown dry skin invokes language while fingers point to tiny white shoots already emerging, whispering a promise of a plant to (be)come…
Hahn, T. N. (2008). The world we have: A Buddhist approach to peace and ecology. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press.