April 2018

Monday, January 17, 2011

Slow Learner

I must be a slow learner, but I did NOT learn everything I needed to know in kindergarten. I only remember learning a few things. I learned that other kids struggled in ways that I didn't when Tommy had a temper tantrum on the playground every day: since the playground was the most fun part of the day, I knew he wasn't faking his pain and felt bad that he always missed the most fun time.

When I saw my teacher in her bathing suit at our swim club, I learned that old people's legs are different than young people's legs.

I also learned some good songs at our church's program for kindergartners. I remember learning the hymn that celebrates the divine in the natural world, "This is my Father's World." I was surprised when, about forty years later, my grandmother chose that hymn for her memorial service:

This is my Father's world:
He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This may have been my best lesson from kindergarten.

In church we also sang Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" (and my dad says it's not a hippy church):

Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky ?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry ?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Even in kindergarten I understood that the answer, blowin' in the wind, would be hard to catch, that it will take too many deaths til we know that too many people have died.

So yes, I learned some important things in kindergarten: I learned from Tommy that other kids struggled in ways that I didn't; I learned that old people had funny legs; I learned that the world's beauty whispers to me that God is with me; and I learned that war seems to never have an end.

I also learned some things in kindergarten that I had to unlearn, however. Though I don't remember this experience personally, research shows that some young people before kindergarten may begin to identify as queer, but in kindergarten many of these young ones learn that queer is not okay, and these students go underground until maybe fifth or sixth grade. Perhaps I went deep underground, since I didn't come out until I was thirty years old.

In kindergarten, I learned to be quiet if to speak up might mean I'd get left out on the playground. In sixth grade, I learned that silence is collusion. When my friends on the school bus bullied Bernie, the girl who wore cowboy boots, I didn't join in their taunts, but I also didn't stop them. My principal pointed out that in this I was like the Germans who were silent as Jewish people disappeared from their neighborhoods. My teacher said the principal was too harsh, but I knew he was right. My kindergarten lesson of being silent in the face of injustice in order to protect myself is a lesson I am still trying to unlearn.

I also had to unlearn the habit of excessive persistence. Like Kenny Rogers sang, "You have to know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to walk away, know when to run." In high school I finally learned that I had to make decisions about how long to persist when, realizing I was not having anything close to fun, I quit the high school basketball team. While quitting the basketball team may seem trivial to you, for me it was not. Through junior and senior high school, I often felt lonely, and my identity as a good student who was also an athlete was central to my self-definition.

I finally realized that I needed to redefine myself and that this redefinition would begin with quitting the basketball team. Later in life, in another painful time of letting go, I had to quit my marriage in order to be myself, and now with these tumors, I have had to give up so much in order to find the kernel of who I am.

I suppose if I had learned everything I needed to know in kindergarten, I might have been a guru or a saint, but in this life I am neither, so I am glad to keep learning, and in that learning is the constant spirit of grace, learning again and again that God is with me everywhere.


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