Thursday, July 23, 2015

Be the change

I've had a hard day.   
Actually most of this week has been less than stellar.  Mid-July always brings a sense of irritation and frustration and while it's fairly uncomfortable, I'm used to it by now.  When late August arrives, I'll be back on my feet, but until then I often tell people, "My alone time is for your safety."
Summertime usually brings me respite and peace, but this year my street has been uncommonly noisy.  From the construction that started in May to Fourth of July fireworks that started in late June and continued well past the holiday, I've not been able to escape the incessant racket.   Cars drive by booming loud music.  I can hear folks in the next block yelling at each other until well after dark.  Even on the weekends, there's no respite as one of my neighbors often chooses to mow her lawn at seven o'clock in the morning.
So this evening while I was trying to write the introduction to a book I've been editing, I heard a group of kids out front yelling at each other.  Even though I had just taught a yoga class and spent some time meditating, I had had enough.  I went to the front door and shouted at the kids to stop riding their bikes up and down the asphalt and gravel piles that the city workers dumped on the curb. 
"I know I've asked you before to please stop doing that!" I said in my teacher voice.
"You only told us once," one of the girls replied.
"And this is the first time you've told me," the boy said.
There was a little sass in his voice, which only irritated me more.  "Well, I know you can hear me now, so I don't want to have to ask you again...please respect that property.  It's not safe for you to do that."
And with that I marched back into my office.
A few moments later I thought about the book I've been reading, Freedom Writer's Diary, about a group of high school kids in Long Beach, California.  I'm in awe of the awareness and incredible life circumstances some of the kids had to endure in their young lives and realized the trio outside my door might just be going through similar issues.  So I put on my gardening shoes and went outside thinking that if they were still out there, I'd talk to them in a more gentle way so they'd know that while I was serious about asking them to stay off of the construction worker's materials, I wasn't a mean old witch.  Sure enough, they were still outside, and the boy was hitting a trailer with a stick.
After calmly asking them to come into my driveway, I let them know that I care about my neighborhood and that they should as well.  "Feel free to ride your bikes on the street or the sidewalks," I said.  "But please don't mess with what doesn't belong to you.  It's not safe and it's disrespectful to others and really to yourself as well.  But if you're ever on my street and need help, you can always come knock on my door."
"Well, if we did, what should we call you?" one of the girls asked.
After we introduced ourselves, I told them, "I'm sorry for using my teacher voice...I don't like doing that anymore."
"You used to teach?" the boy asked.
"A while ago," I nodded.  "I taught fourth and sixth grade, but mostly first."
The boy told me he was going into sixth grade and the girls were going into third and fourth.  "What do you do now?" the boy asked.
"I'm a writer," I replied.  "And I was in my office working when I heard you all in the street."
"Oh...sorry," one of the girls said.  "What kind of books do you write?  I want to be a writer."
"Do you want to see them?"
They all smiled and nodded. 
"Does your mom know where you are?"
"Huh huh," the boy said.  "I have my phone."
I smiled.  "Come park your bikes in my yard so they'll be safe and have a seat on the front porch.  I'll go get some of my books."
Moments later they were all leafing through the children's yoga books and copies of The Lace Makers
"I can read that," the fourth grader said.  "My teacher says I'm on the eighth grade level."
"No kidding!"
"Yeah, and when I grow up I want to be a singer and a basketball player and a writer."  She looked at me wistfully.  "I wish I could write a book right now."
"Well, you can...when you get home, you can write whatever comes to mind."
Then the third grader regaled me on stories she had written in school and the sixth grader told me all about the four-step writing process he had learned that year.
"The writing's easy, but the editing's hard," he admitted.
"Yep...take a look at the red marks on that copy," I nodded.  "That's the one I edited before the final draft.  It was a lot of work."
"How long did it take to write?" he asked. 
"A year to research, four months to write and a month to edit."
The fourth grader's eyebrows shot up.  "That's a lot of work!"
"It's worth it when you love what you do."
One of the girls smiled.  "I'm going to go home and finish that book I wrote about how God made boys and girls."
"Yeah...and I'm going to write a book about some kids who get lost, but then find their way home," the other one beamed.
Then for about half an hour they told me stories about school, tales about their home lives, their parents, the animals they see at the park.  The boy told me about some kids in his class who can be mean.
"I can be, too," I admitted.  "You saw that tonight...and I'm glad I got to come out and let you know that I'm not really a mean old witch."
"I can be mean, too," one of the girls said.
"Oh, we all can sometimes," I replied.  "Especially when we've had a bad day.  But we can always make another choice...and I'm glad I did so we could hang out here and get to know each other."
Before they left, the trio enjoyed checking out my fairy garden, especially delighting in discovering Tinkerbell and the skunk my friend, Beth, tucked into a corner.
"If you see me outside gardening the next time you ride your bikes over here, stop by and say 'Hi' to me," I said, waving.  "I look forward to hearing about the stories you're going to write this weekend."
As the sun set and I walked back into the house, I thought of Ghandi's wise words, "We must be the change we want to see in the world."  In an often chaotic and confusing world, I'm often reminded of the things I cannot change.  I can't make the construction on my street go any faster.  I can't change the fact that summer is moving slower than a snail.  And I certainly can't change anyone's behavior or attitude or beliefs.
But I can change my own.

Even though it's been years since I left the classroom, I find that hanging out with elementary-aged kids is still a wonderful way to spend my time.  Once I changed my attitude about them being naughty children making my life miserable and saw them as a group of kids wanting to have some fun, but needing a little guidance, I was able to shift my annoyance into acceptance.  Only then could I reach out and connect with three little people who I'm certain will ride by sometime soon to sit on the porch swing and talk to their heart's content. 
And I'll be right next to them, eagerly listening, for the sound of children's voices, particularly when they're laughing or sharing their uncommon wisdom, is a healing balm that soothes my soul.