I Am Capable

by Chris de Serres

During circle time we often have our collection of toddlers repeat a mantra.

“I am capable.  I am loved.”

It is important that they know that they are capable beings.  It is knowledge that we often forget later in life.  When we experience some of the world and our personalities harden and fix.

My wife teaches preschoolers.  These kids are master students.  They absorb everything.  They only need to learn to filter out what doesn’t work and embrace everything that does.  Yet, their ability to see something and just do is remarkable to witness.

Even at an early age, some kids show a knack for easy mastery.  Often, they are gifted with early recognition of patterns and organization.  Their feet, hands, and bodies have developed dexterity before their peers.  We see this when the kids do their art projects.  Some paint well within the lines while others create wild, artistically brilliant combinations of colors.  I look at those kids and get excited about what they may soon become later in life.

This is what makes early education so unique and important.  How you learn early in life stays with you for the rest of it.

Growing up, my parents didn’t put me in preschool.  We were moving around alot and they probably didn’t think it was necessary or couldn’t afford it.  I still remember my first day of Kindergarten.  It was a shock to the system.  The herding around.  The bells going off at intervals.  The rapid changeover from doing one thing to doing something completely different.  No transition.  Just switch.  The boredom.  The classmates around me who couldn’t sit still, who had to be constantly managed by the teacher.

The only thing I could compare it to was church and I hated church.  Amongst the confusion and chaos I found a little clarity.  The Scholastic Book Club.

Each month our teacher handed out their newsletter, filled with descriptions of all kinds of interesting books.  I would order as many books as my mom would let me.  She said no to alot of things, but when it came to books my mother fed the addiction.

All I had to do was survive the month until the day came when the books arrived.  We would come back from recess and there would be stacks of books on each desk.  My stack was always the largest.

When it came to reading I was capable.  I was also a good writer, though a bit messy in my left-handedness.  When little boys like me learn they are capable at something, they soon find out that they are expected to always be capable.  We learn to hide our weaknesses.  It’s in our genes.  Just watch an injured male animal in the jungle.  We must always be competent, capable, and physically fearless.  We must be fast-learners and good with our hands.  We shouldn’t react to pain.  We should always be a man.

This is why boys and men can be poor students.  I am admittedly a bad student.  I am a teacher.  I don’t teach in the traditional style.  My students know that I don’t have all the answers.  What I teach is often merely what works for me.  My students are expected to evaluate the value of each new skill for themselves.

This makes us all collaborators.  It is meant to break down the traditional teacher-student dynamic.  I don’t even like calling them students.  The poet Richard Hugo once said to his students that he is merely going to show them how to write poetry like him.  They must resist this notion and become themselves.

For the first time in many years I am excited and stressed and uncertain and happy.  I’m going to be a student again.  I’ve been teaching the same thing for so long I wonder how it feels to experience something new.  I wonder if I will feel free.  Maybe I will be embarrassed in my not-knowing, with my fumbling hands, and lack of understanding of new concepts and patterns.

I often find myself learning simply to hide all vestiges that I am deficient or incompetent.  Yet, isn’t that what a student is supposed to be?  I will judge harshly if I feel I am not picking up a new skill in a timely manner.  I will feel stupid for asking too many questions, or asking a question that seems obvious to all my fellow students.

At the risk of sounding sexist, there is one thing i’ve learned that makes my learning experience better.  The presence of women.  They ask questions, alot of questions.  They don’t seem so invested in hiding their weaknesses and looking competent at all times.  In the classroom, I say many a ‘thank you’ in my head for all the discussions stimulated and relentless questions asked by female students.  I want to hide a little less, just so I can feel this kind of freedom.

It reminds me of Shoshin.  A Zen Buddhist term which means “beginner’s mind.”  It alludes to an ideal that, no matter what our level, we should always approach learning with the mind of a beginner.  An attitude of openness.  An eagerness to learn and absorb.  A lack of preconception about a subject, no matter how much we already know.

Even when dealt with great resistance from my inner world, I strive always to have beginners mind.  Through it no students, however vulnerable or capable, are ever excluded from seeing things with a fresh mind.  We are free to be.