By Michelle Strater Gunderson.
When I was small and my world was safe, I would wake up on Christmas morning and there would always be an orange at the bottom of my stocking – a “store bought orange” as my mother would say. Because, you see, on our family farm it was always a source of pride that almost everything we ate and used came from the work of our hands. I long for these simpler times, when an orange could mean so much.
That simpler time was 1968, a time that historically many of us consider to be one of the most tumultuous in our nation’s history. Yet, my family was able to envelope me in a sense of peace and caring.
I teach first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. I know my job well, and I am actually very good at it (according to all the Christmas cards from children I just opened). And this is what I can tell you, in spite of the politics and policy of education that get harmfully thrown around – the most important part of this job is to keep children safe, and care for them deeply so they can live the lives they were meant to live.
That is it. The rest is extra.
I have been struggling with what safety and caring look like inside a society that seems to care very little for children. Education budgets have been cut to the bone, teachers are overrun with needless mandates for paperwork and policy that take us away from the heart of teaching, both adults and children are judged and labeled by meaningless tests. And the list goes on.
And then we have the forthcoming presidency of Donald Trump and his incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. If we believe their words, schools will become contested spaces where market driven practices will govern policy. And the world will become a contested space where dominant race and religion rule. I feel these times are as tumultuous as the times adults faced in 1968 when my world was safe. How do I take the lessons from my childhood and apply them now?
I gave the six year old children in my classroom small, beautiful tangerines for a celebration. They were perfect, fragrant, and yummy. We ate them mindfully – looking at them, smelling them, peeling slowly and savoring – as if they were a gift from the world.
I teach in Chicago – it is difficult, and I do not have a fairy tale view of childhood. But I do believe that it is our role to bring simple beauty and peace into children’s lives.
In response to this world around us, I ask you, educators and parents alike, to share a “store bought” orange with children, to think of simple acts of caring, that will help our children gain the strength and courage to lead us out of this mess.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is In the Bleak Midwinter. The last verse says, “What can I give him small as I am?” And it ends with “give my heart.” Let us set our hearts and minds to love. The time is now.
Tangerine image by Shanna S. Used with Creative Commons license.