Monday, February 4, 2013

Counting Stars

Sometimes, when I am drilling something with my students or practicing with my daughters, I get out my counting stars. We make a chain, adding a star with every repetition. It is so nice to be able to see what you’ve done. Where you’ve been.

To work knowing that you are building something.

To that end, I will sometimes get out our big box of wooden blocks. One block for each repetition. What are you going to build? It is something that has to be carefully and wisely managed, because there is a temptation to focus too much on what’s being built, and not enough on that tricky passage we’re working on. But oh—when you find the right rhythm of practicing and choosing and building it is amazing what you can get done. Of course I’ll play that again. My castle is lopsided!

*       *       *

Yesterday afternoon I sent my girls outside to play in the snow until dark, and I practiced. They built a throne out of snow. Poured water over to make it smooth and strong. I smoothed out passages and shifts, glancing out the window to make note of their progress, and of how the world around us turned a deeper and deeper shade of blue. A window is a necessary component of practicing, I think—a good way to surface after periods of deep work.

*       *       *

In order to make something a part of you, you must practice it over and over.

How many times before it becomes muscle memory? How many more times before a skill becomes part of your soul? Part of the problem is that it is hard to see the work you’ve done. As your skill level goes up, so do your standards, and you are forever working and forever missing the mark. Except you start to notice that sometimes there are things that used to be hard that seem easier. Fluent, even. You don’t think about them long because there’s so much more work to be done. But the notes are more in tune and you can hear how they ring. And that thing you were trying to be better about happens a little more naturally, sometimes.

How long before what you practice changes you completely? And will you be able to look back and see what’s been built?

*       *       *

There is a boy in Youngest’s class who is haunting me this morning. I first noticed him when Youngest and I were sitting at the Practice Table at lunch. The Practice Table is where you can sit when your parents are visiting for lunch and there is not room to sit at your regular class table. It is also where you sit when you have been removed from your regular class table because you need to practice better behavior. On that particular day this boy was the only child at the table without a parent. He was sitting at the end, looking very small, watching Youngest and I joking about something. Smiling a little. He looked a lot like my shy, sensitive nephew, except with messier hair. I spoke to him, tried to include him in our fun. He did not answer, but he kept watching.

Today I was sitting next to Youngest in the gym, waiting with her for her teacher to come get the class to bring them to their room to start the school day. And suddenly this same boy was sitting next to us. Watching-but-not-watching. “I like your shirt. Those dragons are awesome.” He did not answer, but he looked down at one of the dragons, small and dark and delicate, climbing up his shirt.

“That’s ________. He doesn’t really do what the teacher likes,” Youngest whispered in my ear.

I spoke to him a few times, when we made eye contact, but he did not answer. At one point, the hem of his shirt just barely rested against my hand. Had he been that close to us before? A few moments later he shifted and was sitting farther away, his back to us.

And I wonder about this little boy I know so little about. I wonder what hurts him. I wonder what he saw, looking at us. I wonder how you reach out to a small stranger and let him know that even though you’re for-real smiling with your little girl, you know what hurt is, too. Maybe not his hurt, but hurt, just the same. I’ve been practicing, too. Learning to talk about what hurts, even. It is something that takes a lot of effort, but it changes you in a good way.

*       *      *

I wonder how much the ice throne in our yard will melt today. If my daughters will want to work more on it this afternoon. I wonder about practice, and how much it takes to master the smallest thing, and how hard it is, sometimes, to measure your own progress.

And the boy who doesn’t really do what the teacher likes—I wonder what he is practicing. And does he get the chance, ever, to count stars?

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  1. Your best yet... -Ashley

  2. I agree. Fantastic. On every level.

  3. What a beautiful, beautiful post! Everything about it. That little boy. . . there's a little boy I think of in exactly the same way, from exactly the same time of my older daughter's life, and I wonder to this day how he is.

    And this line: "As your skill level goes up, so do your standards, and you are forever working and forever missing the mark." Perfect.

    - alison

  4. This is such a profound post. I had to come back to read it again yet still can't quite articulate my response. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. This is such beautifully crafted writing, with a delicious poignancy. I love it! Janice recommended your blog to me - and she was right, your stuff is excellent!

    1. And btw I love the idea of counting stars/building blocks for practice - wish I had known that when I was at the practising and frustrated stage!

    2. Thank you, Tanya! (I can't wait to check out your blog, as well.)

      I wish I had known about the counting stars, myself, when I was little. I got so frustrated. (And when I am really desperate, i.e. with my own dear headstrong children, chocolate chips have been known to work magic. On the hardest days I reward myself, as well...)

    3. Karen, DEFINITELY go read Tanya's blog. You two are my two favorite reads. You'll love her writing (and her!).

    4. Thank you for connecting us, Janice! Tanya's blog is beautiful--I'm looking forward to reading more!


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