I stand, staring at the wall. Up close. Back away. Squinting my eyes to see if there is anything that doesn’t look right. One thing that stands out amongst the rest.
I built this literal wall. It is built of Styrofoam insulation covered in flannel. It is a design wall in the room where I do my quilting and it’s in continuous use. As I create my quilts I put up the individual blocks, as I sew them, turning them this way and that; moving them from one side to the other. My wall gives me the opportunity to change the pattern, and redirect the colors, and depth of colors, until the entire project is pleasing to my eye. I have come to this wall late in life. On this wall I pour out my creativity for anyone to see. But this wall is different than my past experiences with walls.
I believe everybody builds walls. They protect us from a myriad of things in our lives. I built a wall around myself when my mother died, of cancer, at the age of 49. It was easy then. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time. It was so easy to put up that wall and hide in the joy of an impending baby on the other side. That wall did not come down until many years later as I was faced having to deal with another relative with cancer. Both my children had been born by then and I had nothing to support the wall any longer. I grieved then and for about a year after that. I still grieve sometimes for my mother, missing the relationship we could have had as I grew older.My son built a wall once. He was in high school when he was forced to dissolve a friendship with a good buddy. The young man in question had been new to the school and had lied about basically his entire life to gain friends and sympathy. David felt betrayed when the lies and pretense all came to light; when the young man got in trouble with the law. The courts sent David’s friend to another state to live with his mother, and as far as I know, David has never heard from him again. So my son built a wall in my kitchen. He started baking. Every day: after school, on the weekends and school holidays. Cookies and brownies and more cookies and muffins and yet more cookies. For several weeks this went on until it slowly died away, the wall crumbled and he stopped baking. He was grieving for the loss of a friend and for the loss of trust his friend brought into his life.
As I was going through my credential program I was lucky enough to have some excellent master teachers for my student teaching assignments. My first class was with a Mr. Carson who taught seventh grade English at a local middle school. I thought it odd that he had taken yellow tape and marked off a square about two feet out from the edges of his desk. When I asked him what it was for he told me that it was his invisible wall and students had to ask permission to cross it. It kept students away from his grade book on the computer and his personal stash of teaching supplies. I marveled at how well his students respected this tape on the floor. A very short wall, but a wall never the less.When I first started teaching I built an emotional wall in my first classroom. I was determined to be taken seriously by the teenagers in my classes (yeah, I know… do teenagers take anything seriously?) and so I put up a thin emotional wall and made sure they were on one side and I was on the other. Every once in awhile one of my students would jump over that wall, and I would be taken with their humor and honesty, and their wonderful outlook on life. Once the wall was breached by a student that enjoy stealing from me; sodas out of my fridge, my special bathroom pass, nice pens off my desk, whole sticky pads, hall passes, water bottles and probably a lot more things I never noticed. He was good. I knew who this student was but never could catch him in the act.
My second year of teaching I moved to a new school within the same district. As I dismantled my old room I decided not to put up the wall in my new school. I felt like I could hold my own without a wall. But it turned out, as much as I didn’t want to, that I had to construct a very short, thin, almost translucent wall that sits around me. As one gets to know teenagers, one gets to know their struggles and difficult lives. I have had students living in cars, locked out of their parents’ house, living with their entire family of 6 in one bedroom, sleeping behind city garbage cans. Ones that only come to school because it is one of the only places they can get food for free. Ones that come to school bruised and battered; ones that wear the same clothes day after day. The wall is to stop me from gathering these children up and taking care of all of them, which would truly be impossible. And now, as I go into my eighth year of teaching, I have let most of my students breach my wall. I have let my students into my territory because I have found that if you don’t let them in, you cannot expect them to respect you and learn from you. They have no patience for people who do not want to get to know them. I want my students to know that I am approachable and that I really do like them, or I wouldn’t be standing in front of them all day. And I have learned that for the most part they respect my personal space, even though there is no wall.So, now, as I have finally deconstructed the wall in my classroom, I begin to use a new wall in my sewing room. But this wall isn’t to keep things or people out. It is to release my creative spirit so that I can share it with others in my quilts, my art. I am happier using this wall than I was using my old walls. Maybe it’s age or wisdom, I don’t really know, but I have finally peeked over the emotional walls I used to build in my class room and found out that, for the most part, they‘re just not necessary. I’ve tried to impart this idea to the student teachers I have been honored to guide over the years. Tape on the floor is O.K. but anything taller than that their students won’t be able to jump over. You’ve got to reach ‘em to teach ‘em. (Wow, that was kind of poetic!)