August 2022

School Begins


By Lisa Catterall

Today, I finally remembered the rocks. Then I looked at my classroom and the way I had suddenly made my messy creative space neat as a pin, and I reflected on how I’d never stressed neatness so much with my students as I had in these first few days.

This world’s anguish is no different from the love we insist on holding back.

Getting my classroom ready
It’s almost there; the posters are up and supplies organized, but there is one thing I haven’t done yet. Do you know what it is? I haven’t placed a basket of fist-sized rocks in the front by where I give my lectures and explain things on the board.
Last year, my classroom hosted art studios, gaming clubs, ongoing architecture projects on enormous pieces of paper, messy microscope labs, political debates, fifth graders doing art projects with electronic components, and, occasionally, my toddler when all possible childcare fell out from under me, and I didn’t want to hand over a precious day of my curriculum to a substitute.

It was a mess in here
My geometry students, who came in after the fifth graders, got in the habit of spending five minutes sweeping and cleaning off the desks. By the end of the year, I realized I had some serious baggage over the chaos.

I believe in doing just about anything to encourage creativity in kids, including putting up with really messy spaces sometimes, but I think I finally hit my limit last year.

This year, when most of the kids in one of my classes showed up without any of the required supplies, I went and got matching notebooks and sketchbooks for them and labeled them in neat teacher handwriting. I made a perfectly neat storage space. I spent much more time than usual having the kids learn how to take these items out and put them back neatly. A little too much time, perhaps. Then I realized I had “mess baggage.”

And perhaps some other baggage
This was the year when our safe school, our school in the mountains, did the Sandy Hook training together. This training is a wonderful resource to teach teachers everywhere to recognize the signs and symptoms of a kid who might be planning a mass shooting. In addition, we did training on what to do if a shooting were to occur on our campus. My understanding is that this has been happening for several years across the country. In fact, it has been a part of most teachers’ training at this point.

In July, I was dreaming about the start of the year for myself, my children, and my students, and I had some decisions to make. Just for fun, I drew a Viking rune out of a bag I had in our game cupboard, and the message it gave me in the little rune guidebook was, “if you want to raise a phoenix from the ashes, let go of everything. No exceptions.”

As we were doing the safety training and preparing to face students for whom school violence and shootings are a part of the reality of their time in history, this phrase became a mantra. “Let go of everything, no exceptions.” I had to let go of the idea that we couldn’t possibly ever need this, not here, not now, not in MY life. I had to let go of the urge to give up, and I mean really give up on everything, because what is the world coming to? I had to let go of my embarrassment about occasionally needing to shed some tears in front of colleagues. We are teachers. We are called to the profession because we want to do nothing but nurture the growth of young people. We are now suddenly asked to consider how to protect them in scenarios that seem like Hollywood horror movies.

At one point, one of our instructors gestured at the open door and said bluntly, “the shooter is there at the door with a gun. What do you do?”

Run directly at the person, tackle them, poke their eyes out, take them down, I thought, then I wanted to cry. The face on that shooter is a young person, too.
The thought was just my first instinct, picturing the bright and hopeful faces of my students in the room, looking to me for protection and guidance.

By the end of the lesson, I thought, I need some heavy things to hurl at the doorway in that scenario. I keep some things like rocks around anyways; I teach science, so why not a pretty basket of pretty rocks? No one the wiser. Just disrupt, so everyone can get away, get help, heal, and go on breathing.

I forgot about this because it was all too much to wallow-in, really, over the next few days as I lovingly cleaned out old projects, hung up new maps and posters, touched every bit of curriculum I own and happily selected things that sang for me for the first semester. I couldn’t wait to see the kids and hear their happy and hopeful voices echoing off the walls.

Today, I finally remembered the rocks. Then I looked at my classroom and the way I had suddenly made my messy creative space neat as a pin, and I reflected on how I’d never stressed neatness so much with my students as I had in these first few days. Neatness, I thought, or control? Either way, I sense we all need routine and neatness and some familiarity, to buoy us as we wait, wonder, protest, hope, pray, cry, and respond to the threats facing us and the reality of this moment in history.

Lisa Catterall teaches STEAM, math, science, and art at Mount Madonna School and is a senior associate of the Centers for Research on Creativity. She lectures and trains teachers and administrators on innovation in education in Beijing, China. Lisa has five children and lives in Santa Cruz County.

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