Monday, October 31, 2022

The Serenity Prayer

For more than a decade, I prepared for my days with children as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting took place in the room across the hallway. I didn't intentionally listen in, but over the years I grew to feel that I was, in a way, a part of their group. 

At the end of each meeting, they would stand together in a circle, holding hands to recite what is known as the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Over the years, I came to appreciate that prayer as an inspiring way to start, not just a school day, but any day.

So much of the world is out of our control. The news is full of things we can't control. We might do the little individual things we can by way of ending war, fighting plague, or mitigating climate change, and maybe, just maybe, our small behaviors will make a difference. But we'll never really know. We vote, we write blog posts, we attend marches, rallies, and protests, all of which afford us the opportunity to at least feel like we have some modicum of control over things, but ultimately and perhaps despairingly, we all know it is out of our individual hands.

I often find myself thinking of Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov as envisioned by Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece novel War and Peace. The general understood that at the end of the day, the war against Napoleon would be won or lost based not on individual heroism or genius strategy, but rather by the individual actions of both soldiers and citizens; that history was not about the behavior of great leaders, but rather the day-to-day, fight-or-flight, this-or-that, decisions made by the humans going about making lives work for themselves and those around them.

In other words, I must accept that I cannot end the war, but I can have the courage to be a pacifist in my own life. I cannot end plague, but I can help prevent its spread in my own corner of the world. I cannot save the planet, but I can live as gently on this earth as possible. These are at least things I can hope to control. I can learn more. I can talk to others about my experience. I can even share my fears with them, but at the end of the day, the only thing over which I can ever hope to have control is myself. And even that can be a serious challenge, as all those AA stories will attest.

We are all seeking, if not actual control, at least the feeling of control in our lives. This is a challenge because the universe is chaotic and ultimately unknowable. It can be frightening to contemplate how little control we have. 

When I heard that Serenity Prayer each morning, I recited it along with them. 

One place that adults so often feel they can exert their power is in their relationships with young children. Indeed, there are many who feel that controlling children is central to their role. Just a few days ago a colleague told me the story of an educator who didn't like that some of her students wore their pajamas or played with toys or moved off-camera during their online remote "learning" sessions during the pandemic. It made her feel out of control so she would phone the children's parents to have them act as her surrogates to keep the children in line. As this colleague put it, "She spent all her time on trying to control the kids and none of it educating them." This is more than a metaphor for what too often happens in our classrooms, remote or in person.

The daily Serenity Prayer reminds me that my job is not to exert my power over children, but rather to seek to give my power away, to use it to empower them to assert control over their own lives and their own learning. That's what a play-based curriculum is all about. This is how children acquire the courage to change the things they can change, to stand up for their beliefs, to exert their own power in their own corner of the world. The adage is to "think globally, but act locally." Acting locally means tending to our relationships, communicating, and listening. This too is what play-based learning is all about. These are the important lessons to be learned when one is not under the control of others: it is the lesson of being us, which is the foundational place from which all great change must come. It will never come from generals or other leaders, but rather, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, from small groups of committed and caring people. This is what Tolstoy's general knew as well.

We seek control, we crave control, but it eludes us more often than not. This struggle to control the world can make us afraid, frustrated, depressed, and angry. Even within our own corners of the world, control is elusive, especially when we understand that we may not control others, no matter how young. But we can hope to control ourselves. We can, as the author and philosopher Voltaire wrote, cultivate our own gardens in the company of the people who we know and who know us.

There will still be rocks and weeds to remove. There will still be difficulties and disagreements. But here is where change and control is finally possible.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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