Trail Magic

For my father’s 75th birthday a couple of years ago, my husband and four friends about our age joined him in hiking the “100 Mile Wilderness,” which is actually the top 120 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine.  They planned it for a couple of years, mapping out their meals, miles and carefully measured weights of their packs.  On the Friday before Labor Day, they left Atlanta to begin their ten day adventure.

My dad had always loved hiking and being outdoors, taking his own English students from McCallie and Westminster out on trails to read such poetry as Frost’s “Swinging from Birches” in places where they could actually try what the poem described. There is something about nature that restores our humanity in the midst of a world that often demands we operate more like machines, which is why the trail often sends hikers home more alive than when they began.  While the unaccosted beauty of nature does so much to heal one’s soul from the constant barrage of daily demands and responsibilities, the isolation from people for my extroverted dad in his early 20’s prematurely ended his first attempt at completing a solo hike of the entire AT.  So, it was this mission of completing what he’d set out to do so long ago, but this time with a “band of brothers,” that compelled them to go.

One of many special things about the Appalachian Trail are the traditions of the trail, such as hikers abandoning their real names and going instead by nick names, provided by others in the group, by which they are known up and down the trail.  There are also certain accepted mantras, like “hike your own hike,” which gives each explorer permission to accomplish what he or she needs from the trail rather than what his or her companions have come there to achieve.  “Trail Magic” is the AT’s version of “paying it forward.”  When you have extra cinnamon rolls to share with other groups at one of your stops, they also may share extra provisions on a following day with another group.  Or, providing piggy back rides for small hikers over deeper streams may inspire similar labor to be shared further along.

For my birthday this year, my husband (with the help of my three children, parents and sister), created a box labeled “Trail Magic” for my school year.  Inside this truly magical box are 180 envelopes (the number of school days he thought we had) in each of which one of the seven of them had copied a poem or a joke or photograph, or written a note for me to open at the start of each day in my classroom.  So far this year, I have begun my day inspired by Longfellow, amused by my 7 year old, brought to tears by a love note, and made to laugh out loud by a funny photograph.   This Trail Magic has propelled me into my day with my students better equipped to resist the pressure to have that place become a factory of life sucking machine like accomplishment, and instead a space that restores and relishes the fullness of our humanity, in all of its mess and marvelousness, that we all may engage the world more alive than we were before.

Learner, Thinker, Writer:  Jane Gilbert, 4th grade teacher

The Painfulness of Growth is the Pathway to Flourishing

“Not the twizzlers! NOT. THE. TWIIIIZZZLERRRRS!” my friend’s toddler would scream at the sight of tweezers in the event of a splinter. It seems other than fingers, the bottoms of feet are where small children most frequently experience the assault of splinters, impeding their ability to move about freely and shooting pain into their tender feet. And yet, the fear of the solution, the antidote, the instrument of healing, convinces the small child that the impediment of the splinter is better than the terrifying pain of removing it.

As adults, our response is not all that different when it comes to change, whether that be external changes in our circumstances or the changes that are inherent in learning and personal development. As teachers of children, we recognize their resistance when introduced to new concepts and asked to struggle through the process of learning. Children and grown-ups alike momentarily assume that the uncomfortable process, one that begins with not understanding and then moves into a period of disorientation, is the sum total of the event and therefore to be rejected immediately upon introduction. And yet, this process is much like a vaccination. The pain of the injection is not the doctor’s purpose but rather the prevention of the greater pain of viruses in the future and the ultimate flourishing health of the patient.

Reading through my Facebook feed after significant national events over the past few years, I see very intelligent, “good” people giving impassioned arguments from opposing directions. There unfortunately appears to be this same resistance to listening and learning from one another because the initial reaction to an opposing view is so distressing that we just want it all to go away. I can be so committed to my own interpretations of my personal experiences that I just refuse to see them from another perspective.  This fear of the “twizzlers” is certainly why a large number of people have begun begging for their newsfeed to return to pictures of babies and food. Those cute and happy images do not require that I move through dissonance and disorientation. But those images also do not help me to grow.

Educators are forever promoting the ability to see a situation from another point of view and to embrace a growth mindset. But in order for this to be achieved, one must submit to momentary intellectual and emotional distress just as muscles must be broken down to be strengthened. It is helpful for me as a teacher to recognize that my own default mode is to resist change, to be an object at rest that stays at rest and might throw a tantrum at any implication that I should be asked to become an object in motion. I am not inclined to be moved until I am convinced that life without the splinter in my foot might actually be more enjoyable, might allow me to run without pain, might allow me to go further and experience more.

What if we as adults begin to more tangibly model a willingness to see beyond our own experiences of the world to understand the validity of someone else’s? What if instead of resisting the discomfort, we welcome it, not as martyrs but as those who truly believe it is the golden ticket to enjoying life and loving others even more than a chocolate factory? What if we could then invite our students into the process of change not just for its own sake, but because we had come to believe that a growth mindset requires a moment of distress, but that struggle leads to a lifetime of flourishing?

Learner, Thinker, Writer: Jane Gilbert, serves the Trinity School community as a 4th Grade Assistant Teacher

Developing Empathy Through One I Love

This past year in our country has brought a number of hard conversations to the forefront, and we all tend to respond based on our personal experiences of the world, our individual realities.  Empathy, which we advocate to our students, means stretching to see the world through someone else’s experience of it, someone else’s reality.

The first bit of research recommended was the Chris Rock documentary, “Good Hair.” We drank in this foreign information about weaves, straightening products that could potentially cause emergency room worthy scalp burns, and the money spent and made on black women’s hair. “We are not getting a girl!” we agreed after that horrifying reality was introduced.

We were matched with a Ugandan girl.

Her baby’s home had shaved her head, along with all the babies, to make their care easier. As it grew out, we were told to “moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!” Her skin couldn’t leave the house without lotion or it would appear that she was uncared for, disdainfully stigmatized, “ashy.” Hair, skin, stigma.

Our family has enjoyed the privilege of being “low maintenance” in our presentation, because we sport the majority culture’s coloring and hair texture. I rarely apply lotion to my cracked and dry legs because, after all, who is looking? My first manicure was for my wedding. My ears weren’t pierced until I graduated from Trinity because my grandparents had impressed upon my parents that if God had wanted holes in our ears, he would have made them that way.

When we brought our baby girl home from Uganda, our black neighbors wanted to know when her ears would get pierced. When we go to Target, or Kroger, or the library, hair products are recommended from strangers who share her same skin tone. My friend, a thought leader in the Black Lives Matter movement within the mainstream, Christian churches, explained from her own experience that when our daughter walks into a store or community of any kind, we should not give others any additional reason to look down on her than she will already face as a person in dark skin. In other words, even our freedom to have messy hair, understated attire, and dry skin is a privilege that I don’t even have to consider.

We watched Dark Girls on Netflix, and cried.

I didn’t own slaves. I don’t make racist jokes. I have black friends.   And yet…my black daughter is treated differently in public places than my white daughter. I can walk into any gas station on our way to the beach and blend in while they keep an eye on my baby girl. She has already been harassed by middle school girls in our low income neighborhood, who share her skin color, and heard her call my white husband, “Daddy!” They taunted her, repeatedly even though she was only 5 at the time, “Black people aren’t supposed to be with white people! We don’t even go to school together!” She shrunk into her daddy’s leg, clinging tightly in fear and confusion.

On MLK, Jr. Day, three months later, she brought this experience back up at our dinner table. It was what he had fought against, but the battle continues to wage. My older two children would never have known how painful current day racisim is, from all skin tones, if they didn’t have a sister who weeps like an old soul trying to figure it all out.  Empathy grows when we place ourselves in a position to experience the perspective of another.  The emotional complexities of living life in different skin can remain at a distance until we are hurt deeply by the deep hurt of one we love.


Learner, Thinker, Writer: Jane Gilbert serves Trinity School as 4th Grade Assistant Teacher