Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Finding Our Way Back Home

As I did last August, I've had the opportunity to spend some time with the wonderful Niki Buchan here in Australia, much of it in the process of getting from one place to another. We talk about children and learning and teaching, of course, but we've also had the time and space to ramble far afield. For instance, as we discussed the sky being blue Niki wondered if what she sees as "blue," if she were to see it through my eyes, would appear to be what she calls "red," "purple," or "yellow." I reckon there is a scientist who can answer that for us, but I don't think there is any doubt about the larger question: no one sees the world as it really is. We all see the world according to our brain's unique best guess, which means, in a very real sense, that we are in this alone as the only one who sees our unique reality.

As I've traveled through Australia these past couple weeks, alternating between standing at the center of attention speaking with groups of educators in their schools, centers and living rooms, then spending longer stretches of time on my own in airports, hotels, and train stations making my way from here to there, I've inevitably been left to contemplate journeys, both mine and those of others. We all, of course, understand that life is, at bottom, a journey, even while it's an easy thing to forget in the rush of going about our day-to-day lives.

A couple days ago I was to catch a train from Beerwah into the Brisbane city center where I was going to stay for the night. I arrived early at the two-platform station to find myself alone with one other traveler, a young woman who appeared overwhelmed by luggage. She was on Platform 1 across from where I stood. The machine meant to tell passengers where they were to wait was out of service, so I called across to her, "Are you going to Brisbane?" When she answered she was, I crossed the tracks using the overhead bypass. When I tried to make small talk, I discovered that she struggled with English, although she communicated a part of her particular view of the world: the signage over on Platform 2 across the way read "Brisbane," but she had waited there the day before and had been left behind as the train had instead stopped here on Platform 1, which is why she waited there today. Her youth, language challenges, and admitted failure on the day before made me lose some confidence in the validity of her judgement. I mean, I was a foreign traveler as well, but that sign across the way did, indeed, read "Brisbane." I now had doubts that we were waiting in the right place.

After a few minutes I noticed three rowdy young men making their way toward us. I could tell even at a distance that they were inebriated. Two of the men, their reality impaired, or perhaps enhanced, by alcohol crossed the tracks by jumping down into the rail bed, ignoring both safety and legality to cross the tracks. The third man, lagging behind, paused on the platform clearly wondering where his companions had disappeared. I figured he was at least a local, so despite his state I asked him if he knew on which platform we ought to await the train to Brisbane. It took him a moment to focus and his knees appeared like rubber, but he responded, in a clear Aussie accent, "Usually it comes in over there, mate," pointing across the way to Platform 2 where the sign read "Brisbane." My brain saw this as decisive.

As he staggered off, I consulted with the young woman, convincing her that we ought to cross back over to the other side. I helped her with her luggage and we traveled together up the stairs, across the overpass, then back down to the other side. She still clearly had her doubts about taking the advice of a drunk, as did I, so when a pair of what I will lovingly call geezers showed up to cross the tracks, I asked them for their council. One of them merely shrugged, but the other said, "Usually the Brisbane train stops at this platform," meaning where we were now waiting, "but sometimes there's a freight train or something and then it stops over there," pointing across the way. Apparently, he could tell it wasn't an entirely satisfying answer so he added, "They'll make an announcement as the train pulls in. They'll wait for you to cross if you're on the wrong side." Then he added in the spirit of a joke, "It's Australia, after all!" I laughed because he did, although my reality didn't permit me to understand the humor.

As we waited, a couple more locals, also traveling to the other side of the tracks, told us they would wait where we were waiting, so I, and I think my companion, were starting to feel more confident.

There is a well-known zoo in Beerwah and as time approached for the train to arrive, a zoo shuttle bus pulled up and let off a handful of tourists who promptly crossed over to the other side of the tracks, which placed me back into my doubts. I called across to them, "Are you going to Brisbane?" When they answered they were, I asked, "Are you sure that's the right platform?" And they replied, "Yes." I looked at the young woman with all the bags and I could tell that she really wanted to join them, so I helped her carry her bags back to where I'd originally found her. By now, there was an unspoken agreement that we were in this together, and we were agreeing to join others who were traveling our way.

Once back on Platform 1, I asked again, "Are you sure this is the right platform?" And this woman answered, also in an accent that wasn't Australian, "The zoo bus driver told us to wait here." This didn't give me full confidence I sought, but now there were eight of us waiting on Platform 1 for a train to Brisbane and no one waited on the other side. As the time for departure grew closer a couple more people joined us, bolstering the ranks of those of use whose reality included getting to Brisbane on the next train.

This is when a young man with a bicycle appeared on Platform 2 across the way, the side with the sign that read "Brisbane." He called out to us, "Are you going to the city?" I answered for everyone, "Yes," and he replied, "It usually stops over here," in a clear, non-drunk, non-geezer Aussie accent.

I said, "We were told the train was stopping over here." When he didn't reply, I added, "We've democratically decided to wait here."

He bounced his bike a couple times, then said, "Tell you what. If the train stops here, I'll hold the door while you cross over and you do the same for me, okay?" I agreed, presuming to speak for my fellow travelers. After a few more minutes, however, the young man crossed over to wait with us. When the train arrived, there was no announcement, but it did pull up to Platform 1 where we all waited together. There was still some doubt, however. Even as we boarded the train, I heard a woman ask another passenger, "Is this train going to Brisbane?"

Yesterday, as I made my way from Brisbane to Perth, I came across an Australian aboriginal proverb: 

We are all visitors to this time and place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, and then we return home.

Our inability to see objective reality leaves us alone with our brains' best guesses and that practically limits our capacity to observe, learn, and grow. It's when we travel together, when we share our journey, that we can find our way: it's in the company of fellow travelers that we can find our way back home.

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1 comment:

Lisa said...

Hello from Melbourne! Just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your blog, and find it both inspiring and thought-provoking in the way you combine everyday teaching experiences and observations with reflections on ideas about the education system, policy and so on. I am studying to be an early childhood teacher and also a mother to two young children, and have been inspired by your ideas both in parenting and in my first teaching placement earlier this year. Hope you enjoy the rest of your Australian trip!