Monday, April 30, 2012


The defining feature of our school's immediate neighborhood is The Troll. He lives under the north end of the Aurora Bridge on a bare, dusty patch of ground that once provided cover for nefarious doings. He's a big city retelling of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," except instead of making dinner of goats snatched from the bridge, he's munching on a VW Bug with California license plates.

I rarely pass The Troll when there aren't at least a few pilgrims snapping photos of themselves standing on his knuckles. 

We spend our days in the shadow of the Troll's bridge. The fence is too high for the children to see it, but the adults can look out on the Aurora Bridge span from our outdoor classroom.

A few blocks down the hill is our other neighborhood bridge: the Fremont Bridge. I cross it every day on my commute. All the kids know this bridge, and not only for it's unique blue and orange paint job and neon Rapunzel who lives in the north tower, but also because it's a draw bridge. As Grey told me on a recent field trip, "It's a opening up bridge."

We're a city of bridges, in fact, and the children of Woodland Park cross several of them every day just in the course of their business. They might not know them by name, but they know them. Within five minutes of our front door there's also the Ballard Bridge, the University Bridge, both draw bridges, and the span of the I-5, not to mention the dozen of smaller passovers that connect our neighborhoods together. And then there are the two major floating bridges across Lake Washington connecting us to the Eastside. We live under them and over them, forever passing from one side to the other.

It's hard to not admire the simple symbolic power of a bridge. Each year our Pre-K kids, on the second to the last day of school, cross a little bridge I've built from blocks, a ceremony of easy to grasp meaning. A bridge means what it is, a way from one side to another: made no less profound by it's bald-facedness. 

Bridges always represent challenge as well, in their engineering, in the crossing of them, and in the anticipatory fear of what may be on the other side. When a child places a board between two places, landing it on foundations on both ends, taking the time to make sure it's secure, she is playing with the same forces, and solving many of the same problems as those faced by the engineers who designed and the workers who constructed the bridges that connect our city.

We don't always trust our own bridges the way we do the ones we drive across because we know that humans, at least the ones building our classroom bridges, are fallible. Later we'll learn about the fallibility of all humans, if we don't know it already: that sloppiness with a mere decimal point can bring it all tumbling down. A decade or so ago, a motorist drove through the concrete and landed not far from The Troll. There's that kind of fallibility too.

That's why we build a lot of our bridges closer to the ground, often just enough to keep our feet dry as you cross from one side of a trickle of water to the other. Falling from here is no catastrophe, but it does give us a place to practice and to plan for the next generation of bridges we're going to build and traverse.

In our part of the world at least, and probably everywhere, bridges are a simple metaphor, one that unlocks new ways of thinking about not just our physical world, but about every change in our lives, every transition from one thing to another, every challenge, every graduation, every billy goat that disappears. Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and this, the bridge, is an important one to understand.

And the more you understand about a metaphor, the more sides from which you are able to view it, the more powerful it becomes. As the children balance across the bridges they've built to connect this place to that, raising their feet up out of the muck, they gain not just in their physical abilities of balance and large muscle control, but also their cognitive ones of anticipation, concentration, and confidence.

Not to mention their imaginations, as we wonder what might exist on the other side or just beneath our feet.

After all, we know about The Troll.

When I first saw our windmill it was being stored under the Ballard Bridge.

No one ever teaches anyone about bridges, but everyone learns about them.

And everyone finally passes to the other side.

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