Opening Up

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Open Space lives up to its name.  It really IS that open.  Anyone can appropriate the space — no bureaucratic application or credentials needed, just the willingness to share something, anything or a burning question to start the ball rolling.

I attended Moe’s open space and was struck by how insidious this idea of separation was but it was quite “harmless” studying in school back then about Descartes and his dualistic model of society. Then we looked at the destruction man has wrought and what the concept of separation has brought. Tragic.  I came out of the dark, hot media room seeking air and accidentally walked into Hoho’s impromptu workshop in the lab.

A photographer, Hoho explained that she’d like for us to go somewhere so we all voted to search for a venue outside.  At a crossroad, she asked again which direction and eventually we trooped to a grassy, sloping area shaded by trees.  She then asked what people wanted to do and we ended up electing to sleep so everyone chose a spot and arranged their bodies in a comfortable position to snooze while Hoho snapped away with her camera.   It was hard to get up after because you just wanted to stay and stare at the trees and blue sky above and I thought how wonderful to get a rest from heavyweight thinking and discussing.

Somebody broached the idea of going to the stream next and what a discovery!  Beyond the path where we usually walk from dormitory to canteen was a sharp drop into the jungle and we lowered ourselves with the help of a rope.  We splashed about in the water flowing over rocks, moss and fern and screwed separation.

Another workshop I joined was Simon’s because of the compelling title, “How to use meetings to solve problems without use of punishments.”   Surely, I knew in theory that reward and punishment are the lowest forms of teaching something but I can’t get out of the pattern like I’m stuck.  Hearing Simon R. was helpful and he continued the thread of conversation with another open space this time, exploring why we keep repeating certain unwanted behaviors by tracing the roots to past occurrences.

Simon R. shared how his ill-tempered father hit and shouted at him when he was a child and as a father himself now, he exhibited behavior towards his own son that recalled his father’s.  He wanted to break the chains that bound him and he was only able to do it through internal work and seeking professional help online.  This revelation touched a nerve in people in the room and others shared their own realizations.

While three more people talked about their experience that made them rethink their parenting or teaching style vis a vis baggage from the past, I pondered what is it that’s triggering my undesirable bursts towards my own children or why I couldn’t change my habit of using reward and punishment even if I wanted to.   The conference had already ended and we were making the journey back home when it dawned on me: trust.  I had a trust issue.  It was hard for me to let go of control and to trust my children more because I don’t feel trusted as an adult child to decide what’s best for my own family.  That neediness to control because somebody sought to control you – the awareness frees you to be less of a control freak and let go.  Belated thanks to Simon R. for aiding in pushing it to the surface!  I went home feeling like a healthier mom.

Because I was interested in the Tokyo Shure University, I eagerly attended the Open Space about Japan’s democratic education movement borne out of a phenomenon termed “school refusal.”  The students refuse to go to school not because of economic or health problems but because they encountered bullying or they felt in their hearts that it was something they believed was true to their identity.  One by one, the people in the circle related their story.

One woman got tired of the situation where everything is evaluated and compared.  In the classroom, her value was measured by how she performed against the others.  To top it off, state school was simply boring. One day she caught a bad cold and decided not to return to school.  At first she could not fully understand and express the reason and it was a difficult time for her.  People regarded students who did this as sick or disabled.

At nineteen years old, she entered Shure University and everything changed for her.  Before she had nothing – no friends, no knowledge, no experience.  She thought she was a “wrong” person and a level below humans.  Those ideas limited her behavior.  Now she’s fine, active and creative.  At the APDEC, she offered her photographs for sale at the fundraiser.  She was lucky that her parents had heard about Shure University and she spent one week to try it out.  During that short experimental period she realized what was taken away from her – that idea that it’s okay to pursue something you are interested in. That idea empowered her to alter her self-perception and turn around her life.

There are so many stories to tell, all worth documenting but it might even be better to just join the APDEC in Tokyo next year.

Lastly, I had one interesting final Open Space in the crowded train from Miaoli to Taoyuan.  We were stuck in a tight space, standing up with no seats because all the tickets were taken.  It was perhaps deliberate on the side of the universe that I ended up beside a fellow conference participant, Leon from South Korea who was so excited to show the pictures on his phone.  He finished chemistry in college and was now pursuing his masters in Alternative Education at the Asia Life University.  Leon’s phone pictures were mostly these groovy-fun-looking experiments he did with high school students plus other student activities that made me think, “What a teacher nerd!”  I mean that in a good way.  Teachers get excited about what they do and the excitement is contagious.

I previously attended an Open Space about the Korean democratic schools inspired by Gandhi and which embraced the ideals of love and compassion.  I thought then how I wanted to visit Korea to see for myself and the train ride with Leon gave me an extra glimpse.

When we got back to China, my two friends Donna and Lucy, who went with me to the conference, and I couldn’t stop doing Open Space, discussing about education that we even formed a WeChat Group called APDEC in the future.

Learn more about Shure University and from Simon R.’s recommended author Alfie Kohn who wrote Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason.

Moe Zimmerberg has worked for decades in the field of democratic education at The Tutorial School.  I hope everyone who’s doubtful about alternative schools can take time to read this: College and FAQs.

For Simon R., here’s the ikigai diagram I told you about during breakfast:

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