Lessons in Softness
It’s late October near Safford and the air has begun to find its chill. I’ve never been to this part of the country at this time of year. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that the fields are white. Every other time I’ve been here, the fields are empty and brown, and the slightest of winds can lift up layers of dust and billow them across the highway. That dust carries a feeling of barrenness, of waiting. But now, glory glory, the fields are white!
Cotton. It’s what these towns live from, in part. So that’s how cotton grows? Glory glory, indeed.
I delight in the full fields not for the same reason the farmers do, or the businessmen, or even the artists who weave and sew the eventual cotton threads into things to be worn or spread over beds or hung on the wall. I delight in the fields full of cotton simply because of softness. Softness. A necessary thing, so quiet and gentle, and somehow fortifying.
I’m working this week with the 4th graders, two classrooms—one with an experienced teacher and one with a teacher who is new to the program. The kids are writing stories, animal legends again. This time instead of coming at the end and nudging the kids to add more details, I’m starting out the process (at my request). That doesn’t mean I don’t have to stick around for the ending. I do. The goal, as set by their teachers, is for each student to finish an animal story by week’s end. Whoa.
An animal legend traditionally teaches a lesson or reveals an animal’s particular trait and perhaps explains how that trait was acquired. These children have heard legends before. Their culture, the San Carlos Apache, like most native cultures, is full of them. These will be their own variations, reflections of their own imagination.
A week or two before my arrival, I happily discover some YouTube video clips from the BBC series, “Walk on the Wild Side,” in which members of the animal kingdom are given voiceovers and personalities. I watch until I cry laughing.
I show the kids a few clips. They laugh, too. Talking animals! On video, it’s called silly, and quite hilarious. In writing, it’s called personification. What does Gray Fox say? How does Hummingbird sound? What does Tortoise want us to know?
The students have already selected the animals they want to write about—king snake, canyon wren, mountain lion, coyote, Gila monster, hummingbird, jackrabbit, cottontail, black widow, elk, and so on. All animals in Arizona. I read aloud other animal stories, and together we trace their structures. I give the students a chart to help them organize ideas before they begin writing. I emphasize visual details, sounds, character traits, plot sequencing, and the importance of a “problem” or a conflict. Something to resolve. A lesson the animal learns for himself or teaches to us, the readers.
Things go okay. Writing is hard. Some kids do the work. But others are up and out of their seats, or just staring at their paper, or pretending to write, but actually making little circles all over the page. Some of them get caught up in real life, forget that their stories can be wild and fictitious. They just want their animal, say, the Two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly, to be friends with, say, the Gila monster, which happens to be the animal their real-life best friend chose to write about. Okay. So the story proceeds to tell how the two of them played in the desert, but doesn’t reveal anything about what’s special about the butterfly. Or the Gila monster. You’ve forgotten about your animal, I say. What can your story teach us about the butterfly, specifically? Or what can the butterfly teach us? Or what can the butterfly learn? Hey, why does the Two-tailed Swallowtail Butterfly have two tails anyway? Hey, Gila monster, how did you get your colors?
It starts to catch on for some of them, but by the end of day two the writing is slow. They don’t seem to be having a lot of fun. And I’m not having that much fun, either. I feel insistent and goal-oriented. I’m supposed to help them get the stories done. But I’m missing the movement. What to do? Abandon my charge and just dance? Am I saying dancing is more fun than writing? That feels like some kind of betrayal. Aren’t I supposed to be showing them that writing can be fun? Yes. But maybe that means bringing something else into the mix. Integrating, as it’s called. Ahem.
By the way, teaching artists are not supposed to be rigid. I know this in the core of my soul. We can float and flutter and waltz and break the rules a little bit. It’s our job to do those things, to be spontaneous and supple. Thankfully, Susan Corl, the visual artist who’s also here this week, teaching the third graders in the next classroom over, reminds me of this one evening on a walk. “If you’re not having fun, they’re not having fun. Our job is to give them a meaningful experience.” Yup. Thank you, Susan. Soften up, Kimi. Play.
On Wednesday, I come with a new plan. We’re gonna add movement. It’s gonna help their writing. It’s gonna be fun. We push the desks to the corners of the room and quickly sweep the floor. I plug in my speakers. I modify a favorite introductory movement activity called “Six Treasures,” which I learned from Dance Exchange and use all the time. We turn the treasures into animals. A snake slithering, an otter rolling, a jackrabbit sitting, a coyote on all fours, a bear standing, a road runner running. The kids do the movements. The music is playing. They are smiling and laughing.
Then we do some simple walking. Find a partner. Stand opposite your partner on one side of the room. Two lines facing each other. First you’re a coyote, passing another coyote. Walk toward the center of the room and pass each other, without bumping. Next you’re an eagle, walk toward each other, keeping your eyes locked. When you get to the middle turn around and walk backwards, keeping your eyes locked. If you keep pace with your partner, you’ll arrive at the same time and won’t have to look behind you. Eagle eyes. Do that again, faster. Next, you’re a mountain lion. How does a mountain lion move? “Fast.” “Quick.” “Sneaky.” Yes, sneaky. How about “stealthy”? You know that word? Now you do. Walk toward your partner. Very slowly. Very stealthily. Keep your eyes locked. Don’t make a sound.
Fourth graders. Walking toward one another. In slow motion. In absolute silence. Can you imagine? That’s what happens. It’s not me. It’s mountain lion. Stealthy. Silent. Soft.
The moment stays with me for the rest of the week, which is helpful. Because the writing is still something of a struggle for some of the kids, and we most certainly come into more times when it’s not raging with “fun.”
To complicate matters, the new teacher seems a wee bit confused by my presence. Every time I go into the classroom, I feel a little like I’m interrupting scheduled plans. I don’t hold it against him. Teachers are over-worked. I understand that. He’s new. I do my thing. I stay soft.
On Friday, the classroom fills with candy. It’s two days before Halloween. The kids will have classroom parties at the end of the day. I’m impressed by the way children really do become feral around sugar. They can’t concentrate. They’re hungry and the prey has arrived. They are all but drooling, but they lack the grace of the true wild ones. They’re not so furtive.
Their stories are done. Pushed through thanks to “eagle eye” focus and the hovering teacher hawks. And they’re good, actually. In most of them, problems are presented and solved. How Hummingbird Made the Animals Happy (with her fast wings and flying tricks). How King Snake Got its Colors (by sliding up a rainbow). How Coyote Learned to Howl (when his friends got together and scared him). There are a few outliers, like How Elk and Bear Became Friends (no apparent reason, they just stopped fighting). Oh well, whatever.
I bid farewell to the students before the sugar frenzy starts. I drive past the cotton fields. When I squint it looks like snow in the afternoon light.
That evening, back in Tucson, I happen to watch a spirited presentation by the (locally) famous desert storyteller Petey Mesquitey of KXCI’s “Growing Native.” Listening to him makes anyone fall in love with the desert. He is passionate about the wild and ecstatic about wildlife sightings. He shows photos of the desert grasslands. Coyote. Jackrabbit. Ringtail cat. Tortoise. Rattlesnake. King snake. All the animals I’ve just been with all week! I feel like I know them all.
Petey sings a song about two animals he says help each other hunt out on the grasslands. Coyote and Badger. Badger digs while the Coyote scouts. One day Coyote gets shot by some yahoos. Badger is so so sad. He’s lost his best friend. It’s a dear story. About two animals being friends. No moral, no lesson. Just friendship. What could be better? Yes! Of course. Furry friends. How nice. How soft.