Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, SC. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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Thoughts by the Sea
One question I would ask a blue whale, if I could summon it from the depths of the ocean, would be, "Is it your giant heart that makes your kind the most peaceful and intelligent creatures on Earth?"
I often wonder about the link between the heart and kindness and intelligence. "Cogit ergo sum (I think therefore I am)," wrote René Descartes, and we live in a time where the sum of all of life is the mind, the value of all of life is the ability to be right and to be smarter than anyone else.
But what of "sentimus ergo sumus (we feel therefore we are)?” Is the sum of all of life really empathy, the practice of placing ourselves in the shoes of fellow human beings and walking around in those shoes until we can feel life as they feel it?
"If we value the growth of our hearts most of all, could we be more like you?," I would ask my giant, gentle friend.
In my classroom, there is a little boy from Honduras. He speaks Spanish — that is the language of his heart — but he is learning English and tries with all his heart to learn new words and strange phrases that will allow him to live in his new world here. He is 9 years old, with dark hair cut straight across his forehead in a wonderfully crooked line. He has deep brown eyes the color of a plowed field, eyes that sparkle like starlight at night off a pool of calm water. He has big dimples that catch teardrops when he laughs until he cries, or when he cries until the sadness in his heart resides. He has a broad smile that is sometimes mischievous but most times full of joy.
Sometimes I wonder ... what is he thinking as he closes his eyes at the end of the day, or opens them at dawn?
"I hope my new world will embrace me," he thinks tenderly, "and not call me an illegal alien ... and not try to tear me apart from my Aunt ... and not try to tear me apart ... and not place me in the shadows ... and not make me a shadow.
Mami, can you hear me in the dawn? Will my words reach you over the land, over the land, to the valley, between the mountains, to La Esperanza, to Honduras? Help me, Mami. Please. I don't want to be a shadow here. ...
Lessons from the World's Loneliest Whale
In the northern Pacific Ocean, there is a giant whale named 52 Hertz. Scientists named him that because when he sings, the frequency of his whale song is around 52 Hertz. When other whales sing their songs, they sing at frequencies between 15 and 25 Hertz. His song cannot be heard by any other whale. He is known as the loneliest whale in the world.
Normally whales are communal creatures. They live their lives in family groups. They migrate from warm waters to cooler waters to give birth and find food. They follow the same migration route from year to year. 52 Hertz is different. He lives alone. He does not follow a migration route. He wanders the ocean, a lonely, wandering whale.
We do not know what kind of whale 52 Hertz is. He could be a deformed blue or fin whale. He could be a cross breed of those two types of whales. He could be a kind of whale we have yet to discover. He is an unknown whale.
Soon a team will set out on a seven-week expedition in search of 52 Hertz. Will they find him? Will he find them? Does he want to be found? I wonder.
From the Dust of the Ground
The ground on our mountain is rocky ground and the land seems to have more stones on it than soil. I think it is a miracle that things grow here, that things grow so well here. But they do. We are planting, as all farmers do, in the hope that good rains will come and help the seeds grow into whole, full stalks of millet. I am enjoying learning the life of a Malinke farmer. Bala is my teacher. This is his field.
Seeing The Human Spirit
There is a small, mud-bricked, tin-roofed building on a piece of flat land below a mountain in Kenieba, Mali. This simple structure, surrounded by courtyards, peanut fields, and scrub grass, is the church building where we lived for three years, a place that became our home. The people who are this church are simple people like the building itself. Most of them are subsistence farmers growing just enough peanuts, millet, rice and corn to eat for the year. When I think of these friends of ours, three people come to mind who symbolize them all.
The Space Between the Notes
The French composer Claude Debussy once said, "Music is the space between the notes." His compositions were a part of Impressionism in music, a movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on suggestion and atmosphere and favored short forms of music like nocturnes, arabesques, and preludes. This movement was a correction of the excesses of the Romantic period, where the focus was on strong emotion and the depiction of stories and the favor was toward long forms of music like symphonies and concertos.
A Whale of a Lesson
I created my SOLE space by providing one desktop computer per four students, a whiteboard to write questions on, and paper and pens for students to take notes for their sharing at the end of SOLE.
Then I asked a big question — “Why does a blue whale have such an enormous heart?” — and I let the adventure begin. My students began their investigations.
After 40 minutes, they shared their discoveries.
“Blue whales swim all over the world,” said Ki’ara, “So they need a gargantuan heart to be their motor.”
“Blue whales can call to each other over almost a thousand miles,” said Heavenly. “They need a big heart to talk to each other.”
“They swim together in pairs,” said Amare, “So they need huge hearts to care for each other.”
“Yeah,” said Isaac, “That’s true … it takes a huge heart to care for somebody.”
“Kids who are nice to me on the playground must have a big heart like a blue whale,” added Aydan. “And people who are mean must have small hearts.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “How can we have big hearts for each other instead of small hearts?”
Our Stories To Tell
"We all have a story to tell."
These are the words that will greet my new elementary students as they enter my classroom this year.
I will tell them my story: who I am, what I do, when I was born, where I have lived, why I am a teacher, how I came to our school.
I will tell them this story: When I was their age, I carried a tattered journal, a Papermate pen, and a pocket dictionary everywhere I went. I wrote about the people, places, and things I saw with my eyes, heard with my ears, smelled with my nose, tasted with my tongue, and felt with my hands. I put down on paper the ideas and feelings that were floating around in my head and my heart. I was nerdy (and still am) ... but I was me!
"Will you tell me your story?" I will ask them.
Grandpa, you are my Pepa. Before me, you were
Robert Elias Cunningham: son, brother, husband and father but
God, through my birth, made you Grandpa and
I, in my smallness, through toddling talk and wondering words, made you
Now, deep in my life, I feel you kneeling in your garden,
Planting your plants,
Your skin the color of newly plowed rows, your smell the humble smell of dirt.
Sweat drips off your forehead and mixes with rain and soil and
Nourishes the plants so they can grow.
If I were a tree
I would like to be
A giving tree.
Leaves a peaceful green,
Birds could sit and sing,
Children laugh and swing
Upon my branches.
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