Yesterday we had a faculty meeting, but it was fun. Teachers give mini workshops in areas of experience or expertise. For one of those workshops, I wandered to the room of my colleague and fellow slicer, Dawn.
Many years ago Dawn and I worked with a master teacher named Karen Ernst. Among the countless things we learned from Karen, was the power of sketching. We found that it had the power to slow us down, to quiet our minds, to sharpen our focus. In writers’ workshop, I often found that sketching seemed to coax ideas out of my head, persuading them that it was time to form, to emerge.
Yesterday, this was the focus of Dawn’s mini workshop…because Dawn has continued to sketch, consistently, for over twenty years Had the weather been warmer or had we been more appropriately dressed, we might have ventured outside. Instead she brought some outside in. She grabbed her basket of nature, filled with pine cones, broken-off twigs, sycamore bark, shells, and tree trunk wedges and said, “Choose something to sketch. Then just use your pen to draw the outline. Let your eye travel over whatever you’re sketching; move your pen as though it’s just traveling along the outer edges. Look more at the thing you’re sketching than the paper.”
I remembered these words, like a dormant tree remembers summer. They were like an echo from many years ago. I also remembered how much I liked sketching. I thought about how much less I do nowadays.
Dawn added, “I don’t worry too much about how it looks on the paper. I mostly do it for the quiet, so I can clear my mind.” I remembered that, too. “So, just pick something and have at it,” Dawn said. End of mini-lesson.
I sketched a broken branch leaning up against the basket, my pen moving tentatively across the page as my eye traced the contours of the twig, first climbing one side, now curving around a bud, now sliding down the other side. Sure enough, within moments, a memory floated into my head. I didn’t talk. I didn’t write. I just let it play in my mind. I continued sketching. Then I remembered something I liked to do after a sketch, particularly one that lacks some depth. I liked to write around my sketch, using words to form the background.
I started writing the memory:
I remember in my first year of teaching, Pat Beasley taught me about forcing buds on twigs. It meant going outside in February or March, snipping a few branches off a forsythia or an azalea, or a rhododendron (all of the plants that are part of the genus “really hard to spellus”) . Then, bringing them indoors, putting them in water and waiting. Of course, those were the days before we had global warming to accelerate the blooming process.
I can still hear her voice as she let me in on this secret operation, an operation I would then recruit students to repeat.
“Okay, here’s what you do.” She speaks in the hushed voice of a golf announcer. “Go home. Grab your clippers.”
“Uh huh. I can do that.” I nod, glad that so far I can handle this mission.
“Now go out into your yard,” she pauses. “When you tell your class this part, remind them to do this with a parent.” She winks, but I’m not sure what she’s getting at. She sees the blank look on my face but continues.
“Just go out and find a shrub or a bush. Look closely at the branches, and if you see any buds, you’ve found your gold.”
Gold? I’m intrigued.
“Get out your clippers and take a snip. This is why you don’t want kids doing this without their parents. They might cut the whole shrub down.”
I can picture this overzealous pruning quite easily with some of my students.
“When you’ve collected a twig or two from several shrubs, bring them back into your house. If you want to do this at home, put them right into water. They call it forcing, but I like to think of it as inviting.”
That February, we set up jars at each table. Bouquets of twigs. We watched. We sketched. We waited. And soon, our patience was rewarded with blooms that had been hiding in those humble twigs. We had scarlet azaleas, bright yellow forsythia, and purple rhododendron at every table in the classroom. We had coaxed an early spring in our classroom.
Now I’m thinking how grateful I am that I sketched with Dawn yesterday afternoon, forcing a memory to bloom in my mind. I need to do that more.
I also went home and grabbed my clippers.