Holding Space for Connection

It’s early in the morning and I am enjoying the way my medium roast coffee with milk tastes like home. Dawn is just starting to break across my front window. In the States, the days are getting longer as we press toward spring.

Earlier this week I was in Brazil, working and learning with teachers and students, seeing old friends, and starting my days with strong coffee and sweet pineapple. There, people told me they were looking forward to more fall breezes. 

I have so many stories to share from this trip. This first one begins with an Uber ride and ends with a 6-year-old comedian.

An Uber Driver with 13 Siblings

Our Uber ride has arrived and the four of us pile in.

“Boa noite. Qual é o seu nome?” (Good evening. What is your name?)

“Boa noite. Sou a Kathryn.”  (Good evening. I’m Kathryn.)

I look at the uber app on my phone to find the driver’s name. “Marcelo, sim?” (You are Marcelo, yes?)

“Sim. Você fala português?” (Yes. Do you speak Portuguese?)

“Estou aprendendo.” (I am learning.)

“Ótimo.” (Wonderful.)

The drive is 15-minutes long. During that time Marcelo tells us his life story. We learn about his 13 brothers and sisters. We see photos of his lovely wife and daughter. He is very proud. We learn about the upcoming trip he is taking to visit a brother in Japan. 

We learn these things in little bits, told with enough patience and pauses for me to translate them to my colleagues. 

As we make our way, through the busy São Paulo streets, Marcelo asks us about our faith, our work, and how often we’ve been to Brazil. I translate the answers back to him. 

The car feels like it’s moving at a slower, easier pace than the Saturday night blur and bustle outside. When we arrive at our destination, Marcelo says, “Eu vou desligar o carro. Eu quero dar um abraço em cada um de vocês. Obrigado por ouvir a minha história.” (I am going to turn off the car. I want to give you each a hug. Thank you for listening to my story.)

We embrace, all of us changed from this spontaneous connection. 

What gives certain places weight in your heart? 

On Sundays, Avenida Paulista is closed for traffic, which opens up a huge stretch in the middle of the city for artisans, musicians, and walkers. I’ve had the gift of so many Sundays on Avenida Paulista that I now know some of the artisans. I smile at the potter whose coffee cups have the most glorious glazes. I stop and buy more paper earrings from the young woman who has a fondness for wild designs and also a finicky credit card machine. 

I think about a line from a poem I wrote last year: 

When did this city evolve from being somewhere I visit, 

to somewhere I return to? 

What gives certain places weight in your heart? 

After a rainy week, the sun is shining today. We weave through the crowds to an ice cream stand owned by a young woman. I buy us scoops of ice cream and ask the young woman if she will take our picture. 

“Claro!” (Of course!)

We group together and smile at her. She laughs and comes out from the stand to take the photo from the other direction. 

“Se você quiser tirar uma foto, deve ser com meu carrinho de sorvete.” (If you want to take a picture, it should be with my ice cream stand.)

The young woman beams as we pose in front of her stand. Sweet, sticky strawberry ice cream runs down my fingers. 

She couldn’t have imagined this, but there she was 

My friend is zooming through the streets at dusk to get us to the highest point in the city before sunset. She wants to show us the view. 

“The lights on the buildings look like beads on a necklace.”

As we drive, she tells us about her mother who is recovering from emergency surgery. 

“It can happen so suddenly,” my friend says. “One moment, you’re fine and the next you’re not.”

We nod. We’ve all experienced this with people we love. For a moment, her words blur and I am no longer in the car. I am with my grandma in another state, in another country, across the ocean. 

Something pulls me back into the conversation. My friend is telling us about the under-resourced hospital and how she fed the strangers who roomed near her mother. 

“They didn’t have anyone,” she tells us sadly.

She said she couldn’t have imagined this, but suddenly there she was cutting up meat, adjusting bed pillows, and bringing in extra linens for people she had just met. 

We arrive at the overlook just as the light is starting to change. We take photos and watch the sun dip into the sea. The lights shine across the shore exactly like beads on a necklace.

Their secret handshake starts with a high five

The students will arrive in a moment. For now we are organizing crayons, preparing ourselves for the chaos and excitement of twenty-three 6-year-olds.

The first child to enter walks right up to me. In a few moments, we will learn that she is both the class leader and class comedian. For now, though, we are just meeting for the first time.

I lower myself to her eye level.

“Você fala português?” (Do you speak Portuguese?)

“Estou aprendendo, assim como você está aprendendo inglês.” (I am learning, just like you are learning English.)

She looks at me seriously and to make sure I am telling the truth, she quizzes me. “Um dois três…” (One, two, three…)

When I answer, “quatro cinco seis!” (four, five, six!) she giggles and gives me a hug.

Now that we’re such good friends, she teaches me their class’s secret handshake, which starts with a high five and ends with a fist bump. 

________________________________________________________

In each of these moments, what gave us the grace and good sense to hold space for connection? Maybe it has something to do with being so far from home and feeling a little bit lost ourselves. Then again, it bears mentioning that sometimes even at home we still feel a little bit lost and searching for connection.

Regardless of where you go, almost everyone you meet warms when they show you photos of their families. Small business owners are always proud to showcase their work. When someone is sick they need our prayers and when someone is lonely they want to be seen and heard. These things transcend place.

What if these simple sparks of human connection are what tethers us to each other?

This may be my most important lesson from last week.

The more I travel, the more I’ve learned that it isn’t the unfamiliar landmarks that give us direction, but the familiar spaces we share.

With you for the journey,

Dr. KFW

The Universal Language of School

Hanoi Journals

I slide off my high heels, adding them to the large pile of shoes at the front of a brightly colored kindergarten building in Hanoi, Vietnam. Looking down the hallway I notice dozens of irregular snowflakes each cut with kid scissors and hung with a teacher’s care. I feel at home.

While I have never been to Vietnam before, much less this specific school, my global travels have shown me that there is a shared humanity that runs across our school hallways. Whether I am at a Catholic school in Brazil, a private school in Vietnam, or a public school in the United States, there are several things I know to be true. These things transcend language, culture, and worldview.  In fact, they may be the magic that makes schools work.

Connection matters

  • It only takes one spark of laughter to change the whole tenor of a classroom. 
  • Learning a new game can bring people together.
  • Though we show it in different ways, we all need to connect.
  • It is absolutely possible to sit with someone who speaks a different language than you and have a conversation.
  • Friends can share a joke without saying a word.
  • There is a renewed sense of possibility each morning when we greet students and colleagues. 
  • Few gifts are more treasured in a school day than receiving art from a student or a hot cup of coffee from a teacher.

Kids are Kids

  • Young children need to dance and sing.
  • Middle school students are curious about everything.
  • You can see both the lasting glimmers of childhood and the new glimmers of adulthood flash across the faces of high school students at play or work.
  • Kids carry big worries and big ideas and they don’t always know how to express those.

Universal Language

  • We straighten our gaze with determined focus when solving an interesting problem. 
  • When we see something beautiful, we want to share it.
  • We nod when we say thank you.
  • We crinkle our eyes to show delight.
  • There is a telltale kind of tired that teachers everywhere wear on their faces at the end of a school day.

I am grateful to Wellspring International Bilingual School for inviting us to spend the week with students and teachers. While I did manage to learn a few phrases in Vietnamese (thank you mostly to a group of sixth grade students), more importantly I learned that it doesn’t take spoken language to say many of the things that matter most in school including: thank you, I see you, I value you, and I’m happy you’re here.

Appreciatively yours, Dr. KFW