“… Whose the Forest of Them All?” See What I Did There?

Imagine somebody offers you a friendly smile, but you snarl back. What might be their next reaction? Would they be amused and take it as a friendly jibe, just typical “you”? I suppose that would depend on how well they knew you. Would they be bemused because they don’t know you so well? Really, snarling at a friendly smile…? We’re perfect strangers, for goodness’ sake! Would they be confused because they’re not from around here and just can’t reckon the response in any way? A person’s reaction to your snarl might conceivably be anything—it depends on so many factors, and even in these three suggestions, one can find how-many-more details, nuances, and possibilities that take things further. Any “next reaction,” you might finally conclude, just depends on the person.

That response, “it depends,” is often criticised as merely wishy-washy yet, apparently, there’s an ironic ring of absoluteness to it, like the postmodern clarion call that nothing is true except for this statement. The reason I pose the scenario at all is to consider who really provides us with our sense of self. Supposing this person smiled at me, I might snarl in the first way, as a jibe, because I’m sure they’ll get the joke. But what if they don’t get it? What if this person even knows me pretty well, and they just don’t get it, not this time? Or what if they feel this just wasn’t the time for joking around? Their next reaction will depend on these and / or plenty of other factors. But again, I raise the scenario to consider how we gather—or, no no, to consider who really provides us—with our sense of self.

And there you have it, the issue: do we each gather our own sense of self, internally, or do others provide us with our sense of self, externally?

I don’t want to revert simply to the nature-nurture argument or chicken-and-the-egg. We seem inescapably bound to considering these by degree—hence, the absolutism that it depends. So, then, to consider by degree… the metaphor I have in mind is that of a mirror. Something someone does induces a response from me. Subsequently, what I provoke in that other person can tell me something more about myself, so long as I’m willing (and able?) to discern my self—myself?—from what they reflect. Whatever next reaction of theirs follows my snarl, this other person’s reaction serves as a mirrored reflection of me, at least insofar as this other person is concerned. If they laugh at my snarl, then hey, I guess they affirm me as a friend with an appropriate sense of humour; the jibe is appreciated, and maybe we’re even a little closer friends than before. Their positive reaction is my feedback, like looking at myself in a mirror, and my sense of self is in some way provoked on account of them by what they reflect.

I suppose there’s room to discuss a lack of empathy, here, even sociopathic behaviour—these seem also to be part of that endless list of details, nuances, and possibilities. But in acknowledging them, let’s leave them for another day.

If my snarl induces a frown from the other person, or some kind of puzzlement or disapproval, then what they affirm for me is less friendly or wonderful, yet may be just as clear—maybe they snarl back, even more fiercely, or maybe they stomp away with clenched fists. Maybe now I feel worried, in which case my sense of self could suffer from insecurity or dismay—oh dear, they didn’t get the joke! Or maybe they are saddened, and I feel smug—take that, you deserve it—or hostile—get lost, I never liked you anyway—which reinforces my sense of superiority, some kind of self-importance. The list of possibilities goes on—it depends—but, in any case, I’m able to find myself reaffirmed by that other person’s reaction. I’m “able to” because my snarl clearly exposes my stake in how this other person influences the way I consider my sense of self: why would I even take notice of them in the first place, much less snarl, much less take concern of their next reaction, if they meant nothing to me?

The point is that the other person’s reaction provides me a measure, a reason, a reflection by which to gauge my self as myself. Basically, thank you, because I couldn’t do it without you and everybody else, and you’re welcome because neither could you without me, or everybody else.

Now, pretend there are no other people—you, alone, exist as the sole human being. You happen to be walking through a grove of, say, birch trees, obviously getting no reactions as we’ve just considered about smiles and snarls. But as the wind whishes by, fluttering leaves and swaying branches, you take in the world around you with a relative means of judgment that wades through various combinations of reactors provoking reactions from reactees: Are the trees reacting to me? Is the wind reacting to me, or the trees to the wind? and so forth. You can see all sorts of things happening, but how can you be sure what provokes or reflects what else? Some songbirds are flitting about, high up in the branches: Are they chirping at me? You might not even call them “song” birds (that is, if you even had language—what need for language, really, as one sole person?) For all we know, the birds would actually scare you, and you might rightly call them “scarebirds” or something—in this pretend scenario, with you the sole human being, we’re also pretending that you know nothing in the way of biology or flora or fauna. These are ways of understanding the world developed in the real life community of human beings, not in some pretend scenario of solo existence.

In that land of pretend, after weeks of sunshine, what might be your sense of self on the day it rained, or on the day the leaves yellowed and fell to the ground in heavier, colder winds? Would you even be considering your “self” apart from the entirety of what surrounds you? Here we are, again, at nature-nurture, only this time you might conceivably consider the two in synthesis: not as separately discrete influences—there is nature, and there is nurture—but as one-and-the-same, naturenurture, thereby placing you into the world of existence as part-of-a-greater-whole. Your sense of self could conceivably be more cosmic, in that literal sense of orderliness, and more holistic, in that sense of connectedness. To mix metaphors, you might feel a mere cog in the wheel, a mere wheel of the gears, yet entirely necessary, just the same. Or how about this: I wonder how imperative my right hand feels, as compared to my left, when I write with a pen, but they’re both pretty important when I play golf.

We can conceivably warrant our selves to ourselves, but—as we step back into the land of real life and other people—we cannot live in total oblivion of the people around us. I grant the possibility of living within ourselves as our selves, rendering the responses and reactions of any one, and those alongside, as nothing other than colliding self-interests, but still… That other people can authorize our sense of self—your sense, my sense—seems as inescapable, as definite, as did nature-nurture or chicken-and-the-egg.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve been wondering whether we each sense our self as reflective of the reactions we induce. How much do we incorporate the feedback we get after snarling at a friendly smile? Do we see that other person as though staring at ourselves in a mirror? And, if so, does that mean we’re each of us necessarily, essentially, and thereby compellingly part of a greater whole? Like trees of a forest, or cogs in a wheel, or limbs to a body? For all this, maybe it’s only an issue because we’re able to raise such questions, to begin with.

Teaching’s Other Greatest Reward

“Texts are not the curriculum,” I was told during Pro-D by an administrator, the Director of Curriculum and Innovation. The session had been arranged to introduce a revised K–12 curriculum and was billed as a great unfolding at the onset of the 21st century. “Texts are a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills,” she concluded. By this, I took her to mean that notation, for example, is a resource for students to finger piano keys or pluck guitar strings, which is something music teachers might accept. I took her to mean that landscape is fodder for brushstrokes and blending, something art teachers might accept. I took her to mean that a poet’s intimate, inspired reveries, shared in careful verse, is raw material for students who are learning to analyse and write, which I grant English teachers might accept. I took her to mean that I should consider her remark a resource and that this issue was now settled, which some teachers in earshot seemed to accept. To this day, I wonder whether a musician, or a painter, or a poet might accept her remark, but in that moment, I let it go.

I suppose I should be more forthcoming: I used to joke with parents, on Meet the Teacher Night, that I could be teaching my coursework just as well using texts like Curious George and a recipe book. That I decided to use Shakespeare, or Sandra Cisneros, or Thomas King, and that I would in fact be asking students literally to stare out the window as part of a textual analysis exercise—all just as arbitrary—illustrated the point: I built my course around some particular themes that reflected me and what I believed important about life. This, in turn, was meant to illustrate to students, and now parents, how bias plays a noteworthy if subtly influential role in our lives and our learning.

My larger points were twofold: firstly, no, texts are not the curriculum per se and, secondly, our Department’s approach to English Language Arts (ELA) focused more on skill development, less on content consumption. For us, anyway, the revised curriculum was reaffirming. What I merely assumed in all this—and presumed that parents assumed it, too—was that our Department’s approach was commensurate with the school’s expectations, and the Ministry’s, as well as with our province’s educational history and the general ELA approach found in classrooms across North America, for which I had some albeit minimal evidence by which to make the claim. As a secondary ELA teacher, I chose my texts on the basis that they helped expedite my curricular responsibilities. I suppose it would be fair to say that, for me, texts were a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills.

What was it, then, that niggled me about the Director’s comment at the Pro-D session? Did it have to do with decision-making, as in who gets to decide what to teach, and how, and why? Would that make it about autonomy, some territorial drawing of lines in professional sand? Was it more my own personal confrontation, realising that musicians and painters and poets deserve better than to be considered lesson fodder? I had never approached my lessons so clinically or instrumentally before—had I? Maybe I was having my attention drawn into really considering curriculum, taking the time to puzzle out what that word means, and implies, and represents. And if I never really had puzzled it out, what kind of experience was I creating for my students? I’ve always felt that I have done right by my students, but even so… how much better, still, to be done?

Months later, I sat at a table doing prep work next to a colleague, and a third sat down to join us. Eventually, as the conversation turned from incidents to editorials, the third teacher spread her hands wide and concluded, “But ultimately education is all about relationships.” In the next split-second moment, I was confronted by the entirety of my teaching philosophy, nearly a clarion call except I had nowhere to stand and run, so I just remained in my seat, quietly agreeing and chuckling at the truth of it all. We all did. That was my final year before returning as a student to a doctoral program. These days, I search and select texts to read so I can write texts of my own about particular themes that reflect me and what I believe important about curriculum, and teaching, and education.

I should say I no longer wonder why the Director’s remark that day, about texts, didn’t set me to thinking about curriculum, not like my colleagues did, sitting and chatting around that table.

‘Tis the Season to be Silly!

Here’s a curiosity… I wrote this thirty years ago in Grade 12 for – wow! wee! – the high school newspaper. Good lord, thirty years. When you’re able to say such-and-such happened thirty years ago, and remember it…


Sigh. Beats not remembering, I suppose. While we’re at it, how about a wow-wee for thirty-year anniversaries: diamonds, pearls… joy buzzers? Better watch your back at the reunion, folks.

So what do I remember? My Journalism teacher, Mrs Sullings, had been waiting for me to overcome writers’ block and finally granted me an extension until the following issue, figuring I’d never make the deadline for end-of-March.

I really appreciated that from her but now felt all the more determined (and a bit guilty…) to meet the deadline the next morning. I remember sitting on my bed later that afternoon, struggling woe-is-me, and finally just flipping through the thesaurus as some desperate chance-worthy way of inspiring an idea. I think it was “rapscallions” that got the ball rolling, and from there, as the saying goes, the thing just wrote itself! Then it got buried on page 7 because every newspaper has a layout crew. Joke’s on me, I suppose.

Fringe benefit, though… the next time I nearly missed a deadline, for the June edition, Mrs Sullings wasn’t nearly so concerned. She left that to me, that time.

I’m pretty sure this is the second piece I ever wrote for a public audience, as in something actually published somewhere, out of my hands. Boxing Day - Humbug!.jpgThe first was a few months before, this Boxing Day editorial for the December edition, although officially my class hadn’t switched over yet – you either went from Journalism to Creative Writing in January, or you were vice-versa like us. Admittedly, neither piece is rocket science, much less brain surgery, but hey, every piece does more than just fill its own space in the puzzle. A curiosity, like I said.

So here ‘tis! a piece from the past, yet as much for posterity inspired! O Come, all ye Jokesters, unite!

(If you’re interested, click here, here, or here to learn a little more about the history of April Fools’ Day.)


‘Tis the Season to be Silly

March 1989

With the end of March comes the eagerly awaited Spring Break, and with Spring Break there is invariably April 1st – All Fools’ Day.

April 1st is the pressure release for everyone whose desire to become a practical joker just can’t be contained another side-splitting minute. Jokesters, jesters, and clowns alike all join together in an harmonic convergence of comedy, where conventional precedents of whimsy are discarded, long-established antic-morals know no bounds, and the quest for the ultimate in rusing excellence reigns supreme.

But as one may expect when the wells of witticism have run dry (as is the case in the world now), spotting any sort of Page 7.jpgexuberant attempt at outlandish tomfoolery proves more difficult than raking wet leaves with a plastic fork. And the Ministry of Education has hardly accommodated the desires of those jovial few desperately striving to keep April 1st, the Prankster’s Paradise, from losing all significance in this once derisory society of ours.

In its infinite wisdom, and unquestionably sound methods, the Ministry has conveniently arranged things so that April Fools’ Day occurs in the middle of the holidays, thus eliminating any hope of school-time merriment. In all fairness to the government, though, they (unlike you or me) wouldn’t recognise a cavorting rib-tickler if it walked up and shook their hand with an electric buzzer. Because of this, school must be dropped as the hostel of hilarious high-jinks.

Where, then, can one perform those pie-in-the-eye shenanigans and still achieve slapstick perfection? Home seems a logical place to start. And why not? For the abundance of potential targets, direct family ties keep anger broiling at a constant low, which is a major determining factor when dealing with the art of rabble-rousing, as are the many options open to the aspiring mischief-maker while on a mission of mirth.

There are the obvious escapades like exploding cigars and fake barf, or such monkey tricks as switching the salt and sugar, baking chocolate EX-LAX brownies, or stretching Saran Wrap over the toilet seat. As well, there are some old favourites to fall back on during instances of carefree nostalgia, like the bucket perched above the half-open door, or replacing the shampoo with NEET. Even the family car isn’t immune, as some skylarking rapscallions decide that switching on the radio to full volume, the windshield wipers to maximum speed, the air-conditioning to its coldest setting, and just about anything else located on the dashboard before the ignition is started, can provide for boisterous buffoonery in the highest degree.

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If this doesn’t tickle your fancy, then send someone you know a letter filled with sneezing powder – make sure it’s post-dated April 1st. You may try soaking your mother’s underpants and then freezing them overnight. Or remove the Sani-flush from the toilet and put green food colouring in the toilet bowl. When the shocked victim flushes the apparent “algae,” it is replaced by red-stained water from the toilet tank, which you have surreptitiously prepared the night before, in the name of all that is hallowed and holy amongst the flamboyant heroes of comedy whose Day you’re helping to celebrate.

Obviously, April 1st – All Fools’ Day – is one of the most important events of an otherwise blasé year, breaking the cat-gut tension with its relaxed, devil-may-care attitude. It is a time for everyone to get, get gotten, and be a good sport about it, either way.

Enjoy your April 1st this year, and if you’re one of the fortunate few to succeed in your sally – CONGRATULATIONS! You can appreciate the hearty effort undertaken by all those looking for an April Fools’ Fest.

And if you’re one of the unlucky targets of this annually occurring “puerile idiocy,” just grin and bear it, because half the joke is watching the victim’s reaction. Stay calm, laugh along with them… and then start plotting for next year.

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