Monday, September 7, 2015

River To Classroom

I've finished off my first two weeks with students, and as usual I'm pushing back against a combination of general chaos, the inertia that has to be overcome to get students moving again, and my own sense of urgency about What Must Be Done (in the time I don't have to do it).

So it's this time of year that I particularly appreciate my kayak.

I live in a small town, and my back yard butts right up against a river. I will throw in some pictures of the view at the end here so that you can be appropriately jealous. I'm also a short walk from a rails-to-trail bike path, but it's kayaking on the river that I find head-clearing.

Because I put in and take out in my back yard, and because I'm not crazy about physically and psychologically punishing myself, I always start by heading upriver. And at this time of year, every stroke reminds me of teaching and the work that I'm starting again.

I've done the trip a hundred times over now, and yet every trip is different. It's different both because, of course, the waters in a river are always new, so the river is never the same in that kind of deep thinky kind of way. But the river is also never the same from year to year in more specific ways-- sand bars appear and disappear, trees rise further above or collapse into the water. And the river changes from day to day as well, levels rising and dropping with the weather. This passage may be deep enough to move through today, but next week the water may be too low and the rough bottom bed will bar the way.

Because my small journey will be affected by the river and the weather and the wind, it's pointless to plan in any exactlingly careful way. Certainly the path is predictable in a general sort of way. I know I'm going that way, upriver. But hug the right bank, tack across the center, pass up the left bank and slip up in the quiet space below the island--?  I can't predict any of the steps with accuracy until I'm there, on the river. I may have a rough idea, and then change it when I see a barrier of rough ripples thrown up in my path.

I may take some side trips. When the water is high enough, I can cut up behind the big island and into a series of channels and lagoons that are sweet and quiet and beautiful. I may encounter herons or a flock of geese or deer on the bank and decide to stay and look before pressing on.

The hardest, zenniest part for me is staying focused on where I am. About a half mile up river is a small island, and there the current squeezes through to become both fast and rough, and pushing up past that is always tough-- I know a half dozen paths to slip past the island, and it's always hard to know which one will work (sometimes it comes down to something as simple as a small series of rocks in the wrong place). But if I clear the island, about a mile up the water piles up, waiting to shoot into the narrows, and there is what amounts to a mile-long lake in the middle of the river. If I can make it there, then the next part of the trip is easy going.

But I can't think about any of that. Particularly in the rough places, my focus has to be on the next several feet of river, not the next half mile. I can't suddenly jump ahead, skip forward. I have to put my energy and focus into where I am. For the same reason, it's not always a good idea to start the journey with a specific upriver destination in mind. If I set a goal of two miles upriver, and I can't make it, I turn whatever I do accomplish into failure. Instead, I commit to keep going as long as I can, and then I go goal by goal-- to that next tree, to that next rock, to that ripple. Sure, I have a direction and a purpose, but I have to focus my energy on where I am, not some place far out ahead. I cannot force it. I cannot bend the river to my will, but I can listen to it, pay attention, make use of its particular currents and eddies.

Eventually, I've gone far enough. I usually don't know where that will be ahead of time, but I know it when I get there. I've been out on the river long enough and it's time to get home. I'm out of energy for another big push. The wind is not on my side today and it's kicking my ass.

So I turn around and finish the trip-- still focusing on where I am. There's no way to skip over the space between me and home-- I have to travel that stroke by stroke just as I did upstream. I'm never not aware of the big picture, the stretch of the valley, the green spread across the hills, the silky sliding surface of the water, the river winding out before me and behind me. But my focus has to be on the next stroke, the next obstacle, the river bed sliding past me, a foot or two at a time.

Every trip is different. Every trip brings its own set of circumstances, its own issues and opportunities, and each time, the river and I work out today's definition of success. No matter my hopes and dreams, on any given day, I can only accomplish what I can accomplish, but if I keep my focus, I often find myself traveling farther than I imagined I would.

That all feels like the work of teaching. Focus on the here and now. Know where I am. Know where we're headed. Be patient but push hard. Hear and see what my students bring into my classroom. Remember that I cannot dictate, cannot force the exact journey; the trip we take this year is one that we'll work out together.


  1. Lovely post. Thanks, Peter. And I am appropriately jealous. : )

  2. I plan on retiring somewhere similar, you definitely hit the jealousy button! Happy trails and keep on paddling.

  3. Here's a side of you we seldom see. It calls to mind how much more we could focus on what's good for the kids in our care if we weren't always having to do battle with our dominant hand to keep the marauders away.

    Christine Langhoff

  4. Very well said!

    Though I was not lucky enough to have a river in my backyard, kayaking really helped me get through the last years of classroom teaching and the first year of retirement. There is something very soothing about paddling's rhythm and flow. And the gentle and quiet company of herons, ospreys, egrets, seals (I'm on the west coast) is the perfect complement to the social demands of teaching school.