When the organizers of the TEDx West Vancouver conference called to ask if someone from Opal School would like to share at their event, I shot up my hand. I knew it would be a powerful exercise in synthesis – forcing me to develop clarity around what I care most about in the work we are doing together at Opal. I knew it would be an opportunity to address audiences that might not normally come into contact with our work, and who, perhaps, would offer 20 minutes of their time to listen to some fresh ideas.
Judy Graves, Opal’s founder and a great mentor of mine, often laughed as we prepared presentations about our work. She'd quote Mark Twain, who said, “I would have written you a short letter, but I didn’t have the time.”
I had six months.
During the first several months of preparations, I had regular check-ins with the event curator, batting around ideas far and wide, and becoming painfully aware of how much I had to say and how little time I had to say it. I was surprised to learn that I would have to memorize whatever I prepared. Why did I assume that all TED presenters had teleprompters? It felt practically medieval to present without the aid of technology – especially when such marvelous technology exists. There was a part of me that could imagine getting the writing done. But when I imagined myself trying to remember the words while under bright lights with an audience and cameras running, I often saw myself jaw-dropped, mind blanked, stuck and then running for cover. So I tried to ignore that part and focus on the idea to share. What idea would I share?
I started drafts in earnest after our Summer Symposium, in June. Every version I wrote got shorter and shorter and became increasingly clear to me. I felt like I was slowly juicing a bag of fresh fruit, squeezing and sifting for the sweet stuff. I watched my favorite talks again and again and was particularly inspired by the ideas of Sarah Lewis, Brene Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert – all of whom helped me create frames to hang the work of the children on. I knew I wanted to talk about play, but I wanted to talk about play in a way that would create new images of what we mean when we say that play is a strategy for learning and not an activity we need to find time for. I knew I wanted to share the powerful ideas of the children. I knew I wanted to make connections – between play and learning, between agency and empathy, between democracy and inquiry. And I wanted not only to add to what has become a genre of lament over the state of our schools, but also to offer a vision of possibility for new practices.
When the day arrived, I still hadn't dropped the image of abandoning the presentation and running for cover. But as we sat down in the theater, the curator, Craig Cantlie, began by showing this video:
You know those moments when the universe drops a great gift out of nowhere that you are certain was meant just for you? This was one of those moments for me. In another part of my life, I was that girl on those skis. I know exactly what it feels like to stand on the top of that slope and look down and know that the worst thing you could do is to snowplow. I know the feeling of heading into a jump with ambivalence and ending up in the ski patrol toboggan. I know the exhilaration of being centered and grounded with determination and flying through the air, landing with the kind of woo-hoo this little girl has.
I remember how terrified my mom was when I jumped. And though she never rarely came to see me, she never put a stop to it. And I realized that it was likely because I had taken those jumps as a young girl many years ago now that I could find the courage to give that talk that day. It made me wonder if I offer children - my own and others' - enough opportunities to confront their own mortality and learn to trust they can survive.
And then I used that memory to walk on that stage. I wish it was a little shorter still. I wish a few other things about it, too. But there it is. And now, of course, I hope you find value in it. I hope that you find it an idea worth spreading. We think Opal School is an idea worth spreading and we're pretty sure you agree. We look forward to hearing your comments and learning what meaning it holds for you and your contexts.