Sunday, April 15, 2012

Heart of a Whale

Yesterday I spent the day with thirty students and a few colleagues in an experience our high school hosts called Human Relations Day.  The aim is to bring together students from diverse groups and grades and engage them in activities and dialogue that help them build community and see one another differently--or for the first time at all, in some cases.  The facilitators are teachers and counselors, and by the end of the day there's been soul-baring, tears, lots of laughing, and vows to go forth and make a difference. 

One of the most powerful games we played was "Cows, Chickens, and Ducks."  Each participant was given a slip of paper with the name of an animal on it, and we were directed not to reveal our species.  The task was to roam the room acting out and/or making the sound of our animal, and we were forbidden from using words to give hints or ask anyone explicitly if they were what we suspected. 

I was found by my fellow dolphin in no time, despite the fact that I sounded like a strangled kitten.  It was my diving--apparently spot on. 

But not every animal had a partner.  And not every animal communicated his species clearly enough to find his pair, either.  We had two separate whales at the end, one who thought the other was a bird.  The two pigeons were among the last to find each other (that pigeon noise is a hard one to make), and a single, lonely seagull.

And that's where the metaphor started kicking in.  What if you're a whale who doesn't know there's another of your kind in the community?  What if you are a whale who sounds like a bird, and that really throws off the other whales, who don't see themselves in you?  But then, what if you are a whale who is actually for the birds?  That works if the birds accept your birdy whale-ish-ness. But if you're a whale mistaken for a bird, at what point do you reveal your true identity?  It's no wonder the birds assumed our chirping whale was one of them--there were lots of birds around.

One observant student noted that it was a mistake to assume the only interest in the game, and in life, was finding one's own kind.  He admitted to feeling sometimes, as a dog, that he wished he could fly.  He admired other animals' abilities to "breathe" underwater.

He also argued that if you're a wolf looking for your pack, it doesn't help to wander around murmuring growls.  Wolves who embrace and celebrate their inner and outer dog and who howl and bark wildly are more likely to draw other wolves to them.

He apologized to those animals in the room that he ignored.  If you're a cat, for example, he might have only given you a cursory nod.  "No offense," he reassured, "it's just that you're meowing, and I'm looking for someone who woofs.  It doesn't mean I don't respect you, even if others assume we're opposites."

I thought about our students and the troubles and worries and identities they share with trusted adults behind closed doors.  And how we attempt to reassure them there are others who've experienced similar pain and understand, on some level, who they are.  I think of the whales I know who have been mistaken for birds, or who pretended to be birds for the sake of safety or sanity or stage of their development, or who needed to really be birds although somehow manifested in a whale's body.  Or who waited too long to hear someone else recognize and say, "I know you're a whale.  And I love whales."

It's not as simple as sorting ourselves in a room by species.  Even whales distinguish themselves from one another--some seem more like dolphins, others like sharks.  We've got to avoid over-generalizing our categories and characters.

Here's to the whales among us--with the largest hearts of any animal--who sound like birds.  And who might dance like gerbils and look like elephants and feel like monkeys.  We each have to be our very own kind of whale.  Because as Oscar Wilde said, "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."


Anonymous said...

No wonder I love teaching at the same school

Marisa Reichardt said...

Thank you for saying this. Eloquent as always.

Ms. F said...

I love this idea! I'm hoping I can steal it! :)