Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Center Of The Universe

I've never taught anywhere other than at the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools. For the past decade I've learned to be a teacher in this community, a place where many hands not only make the work lighter, but where many hearts make life richer for children and their families. It's a place that is no paradise because that cannot be, but it is a place where we strive each day in our earnest, hopeful way to take baby steps in that direction. It's what we can do when we place children at the center of our universe.

I've been for the past two days, in my convoluted way, trying to tell you a story about this place. On Sunday I wrote about the place of community, of lifting strange and heavy things, of coming together to work as hard as we've ever worked in order to make art, dance, hug and play together. It's a real place, community is, the kind of place that proves the paraphrased joke Where ever we go, there we are. There we are together.

But this isn't to diminish the importance of a physical place. That's a real thing too, often overlooked in our focus on the people that make up the places to which we go and in which we live. Yesterday, I wrote about that, the physical place that is Lake Union. I tried to give you an idea of the geographical place we are raising our children, tell you the story of what it means, what it has been, and what it could be. 

For the past nine years the place that is our community has been in this physical place, across from the Woodland Park Zoo in a neighborhood called Phinney Ridge, up the hill from Ballard, on the way to Greenwood, not far from Greenlake. The building doesn't look like much from the outside. Juliet of I'm a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here! once told me that she'd rested her bike against our exterior wall while visiting Seattle from Scotland, having no idea that anything special happened here. It is the place on the other side of that fence that the nearly 700 posts on this blog are about. There is very little you read here that I wasn't taught, by children, their parents, and this place, on the other side of that fence.

Just as we are shaped by Lake Union and it by us, every place where humans spend their time molds the people who are there. And we mold that place back. This tiny classroom and tiny courtyard and tiny garden and I have grown up together. We're like siblings or something.

Without children and their parents in it, I know it can look rather common place.

But when it's full, bursting at the seams, believe me, it's a place like no other.

No where have we and our place shaped each other more than in our outdoor classroom, where we learned to make peace with asphalt, a triumph of the place called community. Our physical place, however, has been nudging us out the door. I've mentioned off and on here over the years about water damage. Well, a few months ago, one of our interior walls grew several mushrooms. It was actually kind of cool, but there were mushrooms growing out of a wall, an interior wall, a wall that had been replaced only a couple years ago. The wall needs to be opened, repaired, a process that required us to relocate our summer program at a minimum.

That's when we organized our flotilla of tiny kayaks. We've found a course that leads like all waterways in this corner of the world to Lake Union.

It's taken us down Fremont Avenue North, past the Powerhouse where the parade will be built . . .

. . . and right to The Center of the Universe.

It's a commonly accepted fact around here that the Fremont neighborhood is the center of the universe if only because we've had the audacity to erect a sign proclaiming it. No one doubts it. Everyone knows where you are talking about. And we are now the preschool at the center of the universe.

We've found a harbor a couple blocks away in the Fremont Baptist Church, and only half a block from the beloved Fremont Troll who lives at the end of Troll Way under the Aurora Bridge.

When my own daughter was a preschooler I told her a story again and again about the troll under this bridge who ate illegally parked cars.

Now our children will play on him every day before and after school. I was in a meeting a few nights ago in which we discussed the erosion his human admirers were causing. Maybe that's something with which our community of can help.

And we adults haven't failed to notice the proximity of a nice selection of modestly priced places to convene before and after meetings. But the center of the universe, as it should be, is a place about art.

Like our Lenin statue, a refugee from Poprad, Czechoslovakia, a veteran of the Velvet Revolution, that has been in Fremont since 1995. He gets decorated for Christmas and other events like the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade.

And our Cold War rocket fuselage, which is the kind of iconic kitsch that becomes art though our coming to know it over time. Like the chairs in this tree.

I don't know if this artwork even has a name.

I do know that this one is called Space, the work of local artist Jessica Randall.

I helped dig electrical trenches during it's installation, a pair of hands added to the many that helped her build it.

Richard Breyer's Waiting For Interurban is regularly costumed by Fremonsters to make celebratory, comedic or political statements. He's another local artist.

There's a human-headed dog between the people's knees. Rumor has it that it's a self-portrait.

Even our business community understands this about art and Fremont. Many of them make their own art, like our neighborhood chocolate factory . . .

. . . or sell art . . .

. . . or wrap themselves in art.

Canal park makes art of itself . . .

. . . and is home to this brand new statue of Sri Chinmoy. 

"O dreamers of peace, come
Let us walk together
O lovers of peace, come
Let us run together
O servers of peace, come
Let us grow together.

Fremont - Center of the Universe For World-Harmony

Even the Fremont Bridge is a work of art in blue and orange, with a neon Rapunzel letting her hair down from one of its towers.

I cross this bridge twice a day now, going to and from my new home at the south end of Lake Union. I'll be doing it on my bicycle most days, if only because the car commute won't really save me any time.

All these things are within a few blocks of our preschool's new home, closer than the animals in the zoo to our old place up on Phinney Ridge.

And so like water in a rain river, our little flotilla has followed this downhill course to a new home; a new neighborhood in which to raise our children together. I won't show the actual school space to you now because I suspect that's what I'll be doing these next few days, weeks, years and months, as we move, move in, settle in, and begin the process of molding one another.

This will soon be gone, packed up and moved by many hands, and this place can go back to being what it was before we came to shape it and it, in turn, us.

It already looks a little forlorn to me, but I suspect it's because there are no children in these pictures and I'm comparing it to the nicer, larger, more functional place to which we are moving. Somehow I think it knows it's kicked us out, telling us, Get along now. I have other things to do. You don't want to know what's inside my walls.

Our new outdoor space is probably 5 or 6 times larger than the wonderful place we play now; a place that will return to its asphalt past when we leave it.

The place that is the people who make up the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools will henceforward spend its time in a different physical place, only a couple miles down the hill, closer to the homes of some of our families and farther from others. It's a short move geographically, but a large one nevertheless.

I cannot wait to see how the center of the universe changes us. I cannot wait to see how we change the center of the universe.

This is how the story I've been trying to tell begins, on the shores of this hybrid place, full of art and the ethic of many hands. A place beloved by many hearts. It's the center of the universe and that's where we always live with our children.

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Sherry and Donna said...

Lawrence Durrell wrote - “Journeys, like artists, are born and not made". Im so looking forward to following you on the next part of your journey Tom, for what I hope will be "these next few days, weeks, years and months," I'm really excited for you. I mean how many people get to venture to the center of the universe ... perfect ... I LOVE it!
Good luck and happy packing!!!
Donna :) :)

Apple said...

I've been following your blog for a few months from my home in rural Vermont. For some reason I never realized you were in WA. I somehow though CA. Then I saw that you're moving to Fremont! I spent one of my favorite summers ever working for a small second-hand outdoor shop in Fremont called Second Bounce. I love Fremont, and love picturing you there! Thanks for all your wonderful inspiration. I have forwarded your blog to many parents and fellow educators. I love what you do and how you write about it.
All the best,

Scott said...

So glad about your new home. I can't wait to see how your outdoor classroom changes with new/more space. Thank you for taking us along on your journey. I'm thinking about making a move myself, so the feeling of this post really resonated with me. Hope the transition to a new physical space goes smoothly - and you're taking the best part of your school with you.

wondersofnature said...

I love your storytelling...I was left feeling just a little sad though, possibly because I have things ending for me too.

I can't wait for you to share the new chapters of your story with us.


Anne said...

My friend Tom (whom I've known and loved for years. May still secretly love you!)- you sound a little melancholy wondering what will happen to the center of your universe. It constantly realigns with our worlds. Ever growing, ever changing, new places, new faces. The center of my universe adapts with my changes and helps keep me grounded. I bring my life lessons and experiences with me to this new 'center'. Others who join me share theirs as well. The beauty of friendship glows brighter as I age. I feel the warmth from their hearts and embrace them fully. What great gifts to share! Move on and teach those kids the center of the universe is where they are and who they share it with. Many people have never been invited to the center of the universe...imagine how much fun they've missed out on!

marcia said...

Teacher Tom you, are a wonderful human being. I love your stories and your insights and your evident love for the children.

happy day happy new adventures!

pink and green mama MaryLea said...

I am a creature of habit. Moving has always been, and always will be, very traumatic for me. A mix of nostalgia for the old and what we "know" and anxiety/excitement about the new and "unknown".
I always try to take comfort in the fact that it's the people who make the place special to me, not the physical space but....I will admit, I do get attached to those physical spaces too! Looking forward to a tour of your new space.

Happy Packing -- bet you'll find some treasures!



Change is good T.T. I know you know that. Five years ago I left teaching at a preschool that had been my passion and a huge part of my life for nearly 10 years. It was a move driven by necessity, not one that I wanted to make. Initially it was tough going, being in a new location while my heart was somewhere else. But, overtime I have come to bond and love where I am. And it provides me with a new canvas with so much potential and so many exciting challenges. And most importantly, whereever I go, there are the children. (See what I did there! Ha!) Sometimes we have to let go of the old and embrace the new... and while this is often met with reluctance, ultimately it provides us with so many more opportunities to grow. Best wishes to you Tom on your new adventure.

Thank you for the walk through Fremont... what a lovely place to call home! :)

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