School Lessons – new learning from the past

September is the month we associate with going back to school. You can feel it in the air, see it in the crowded streets and hear it in shops. Vacation is over! Time to get back to work!

Forest School - School Lessons - new learning from the past

Interestingly, the word school comes from the Greek word scholē, meaning leisure. Apparently, back in the days of Aristotle and Plato, only the privileged had the leisure to sit around discussing and contemplating deep subjects.

Framing school in this way as a privilege and opportunity for deep thought puts the back to school season into a different perspective.

Instead of feeling like we need to gear up for Autumn busy-ness, we might think of it as a time for reflection and contemplation.

School, from this perspective, is not an institution but rather a community of individuals committed to learning and understanding. This kind of school is always available to us provide we are willing to engage in dialogue. Dialogue is needed because it expands our thoughts through the contributions of others.

To celebrate September, I invite you to go back to school with me. Review some of the beliefs and information you acquired as a child and, like I share below, consider whether they might merit revision.

School in the Greek sense of the word is an on-going process of thinking and questioning. Let’s apply this to our own schooling.

The memory that surfaced for me in my own back to school exercise was an incident that happened in the 5th grade:

It was just after lunch. The classroom was warm and cozy.  I, a little drowsy from eating, was staring intently at the crucifix on the wall above the blackboard. By soft-focusing my eyes I discovered that I could alter my perception. The objects in my visual field became alive and sparkling — very similar to the state I achieve now through meditation.

Suddenly and shockingly, my teacher, a Catholic nun, called out my name. Yanked out of my reverie by a second and more insistent call, I blurted, “PRESENT,” which was both true and not so true. I was present but in a very different kind of present.

The classroom broke into laughter. The nun’s stern eyes caught me in their gaze sending shivers down my spine. She repeated her instructions: something about reciting my flag poem.

I FROZE. I had no recollection of this assignment.

Oh my God, I thought, I have nothing prepared. It was just like one of those nightmares where you find yourself in a classroom doing an exam on material you never studied. (Perhaps this childhood experience is the origin of these dreams.)

Fearful of being found out, I spewed forth an impromptu flow of words about stars in a field of blue sprinkled with key phrases from the Pledge of Allegiance and Star Spangled Banner. What the poem lacked in eloquence I made up for with a vocal intensity. “Oh say can you see . . .”

Dropping back into my seat, brow glistening, I silently vowed never to have that to happen again. IT DIDN’T!

After that incident, I became obsessed with being prepared. I paid attention in class; took copious notes and completed my assignments often early. I became quite skilled at determining exactly what my teachers wanted. This new approach to school had amazing results! My teachers were nice to me, my grades improved, and I received honors and degrees.

In reviewing my life, however, I realize that my academic success came at a price.

By focusing on always being prepared and, by definition, the wants of my teachers, I lost connection to myself and to my inner compass.

This worked well in school, but not so well out in the world. When you rely on others for determining what is right and wrong, it is easily to be whip-lashed back and forth among opposing views.

I struggled with this a lot when I was producing my films, Secrets of Life and Death.  A new filmmaker and unsure of myself, I kept reediting the films in reaction to anyone who viewed them. George, my husband, finally told me to stop it because I often removed the good with the bad. I had to learn to trust my own judgment and that was difficult and scary.

I am not saying that we should only listen to ourselves. If we listen only to ourselves, we miss the insights that others can provide. We lose the school dialogue. However, at some point we need to make the final decisions.

In order to make that shift I had to let go of my obsession with “getting it right.” I had to come to terms with the possibility of getting it wrong and having that being ok.

Looking back at that 5th grade school incident, I see that there were ways to interpret what happened other than the way I chose.

For example, maybe there was no need to change my behavior at all. Actually, I WAS A SUCCESS! My quick thinking and boldness got me out of a tough spot. What if that had been the lesson? What if I could just rely on myself to always find a way out?

Another interpretation of the incident is that the lesson I learned was temporary. It worked for a long time and now it is time for change.

When an airplane flies across the country from City A to City B, it does not do so in a straight line. It makes constant course corrections along the way. I made a course correction that day. It served me well. Now it is time for another course correction.

From this perspective, mistakes are neither good nor bad. They are informational. They help us to refine our skills and plans so that we can act more effectively.

Still, another perspective is that mistakes are inspirational. When forced to innovate, we can become very creative.

I saw an excellent example of this the other weekend when my husband was framing a print for me. He is a careful craftsman who measures again and again. In spite of this he managed to cut the mat too short. Although we were out of mat paper, he did not spend one moment in regret or self-criticism. Instead, he went right to a solution. Using a large piece of construction paper of a contrasting color, he filled the gap. It took longer and was fussier, but the end result was actually better than the original plan!

So maybe my impromptu poem was not the most creative. Maybe with time I could have done better. Sometimes, however, that quest for perfection, getting it right, can slow us down to the point of being stuck.

Sometimes good enough is good enough!

Also, as I practice trusting my inner compass I become more skilled at impromptu action.

When we let go of concern about always getting it right, we can relax and open to the special gifts of the moment and the wisdom of our inner guide. We become more creative, more adaptable, and more self-confident. From a spiritual viewpoint, there are no real mistakes, only experience and learning.

One last thing — when there is an emotional charge around an event that created a lasting lesson, which is often the case with these early childhood experiences, the emotions must be released before a new interpretation will stick. How to release these emotions is a subject for another blog.

Please post your own insights about the value of making mistakes in your own life or share your own back to school lesson in the comment section below.


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