Lifelong Learning via W.C. Fields…

Never work with children or animals.

W.C. Fields

American actor/comedian W.C. Fields (William Claude Dukenfield (January 29, 1880 – December 25, 1946) was famous in his day and to this day for his witty, succinct oneliners. Fields’ comic persona was that of a witty wordsmith who lived hard and as he said himself was free of prejudice, as he hated everyone equally. In reality, he doted on his grandchildren and owned dogs throughout his life. However, he is very much known for quotes such as the one above which I have used in speeches in the context that Fields meant both animals and children often scene-stealing as they are completely unpredictable. Both share other traits.

I start each of my days walking my 8-year-old English Springer Spaniel. And without a doubt that is my favourite time of day. Few people, except fellow dog walkers, are out rain or shine in the early morning hours and I find that is the time when I do my best thinking. That’s the time when I have been mulling over the topic of my latest blog post. And this week I found myself thinking about why I love working with kids and it is in a way because they actually are scene stealers and they are truly unpredictable, but also because I continue to learn from them.

A real buzzword (that’s a topic for another day that I will pivot to;-) in the 21st century is lifelong learning. Everyone needs to be one and everyone needs to do so or remain unfulfilled. Now, while I do believe in the concept, I’m not so sure I agree with what some espouse it to be for themselves or for others. Working with kids is an easy way to tap into lifelong learning, staying abreast of things, and generally staying au courant.

I mean, I know what FOMO, YOLO, and BFF mean because students have kept me up to date, as they assume that all I know is AARP, CAA, and the like. I have also learned from them that as soon as I start using acronym slang it is already way out of date. But more importantly, what I learn from students every day and why I really love working with them is precisely why Fields joked he didn’t suggest being around them. It is because they are so unpredictable and truly live in the moment. But that is what makes being around them educational and fulfilling.

As I was editing a paper recently for a Grade 12 client on the power of positivity, I was moved to smile and think about a former student/friend who passed away from cancer. Though simple enough, her motto was “Always Smile.” And she did. Despite various bouts with cancer, she lived every day to the fullest and as if you only live once. She also taught me the meaning of resilience, grit, and determination in the face of unbeatable odds. Though she battled an extremely rare, one in 3.5 billion, form of sarcoma, she lived life like she had been dealt a pat hand Royal Flush.

And the student whose paper I was working on spoke about those who espouse the power of positivity and as she so wisely put it, even if all these positivity pundits are wrong, the worst it can do is make us more content and happier. She also opined that every choice we make leads us to a new version of ourselves capable of positively impacting the world and those around us. And that was something else I learned and had never really openly considered. In her paper, she spoke of a philosophical construct that espouses that we are the average of the 5 people we surround ourselves most closely with. Her example noted that her energy and attitude are reflected in the people around her. Further, she suggested that once you open your eyes and realize that every action you take, every word you say has an incredible impact on the people around you, it’s easier to realize the importance of being positive. Truly, out of the mouths of babes.

Another former student I continue to learn from is a world-renowned environmentalist who is turning the recycling world on its head. Though I am not certain as it was over 25 years ago, I am pretty sure that part of his interest and passion for the work he does now as well as the genesis of his endeavours came from an Environmental Geography/English project that he did for me and a colleague in the 1990s. Even if my memory is a little foggy, I learned from him and his peers then about new ways to look at helping the environment such as photovoltaics, electric vehicles, and vermicomposting. Both he and his peers took an open-ended opportunity combined with passion and a youthful you only live once attitude and did things that inspired them because they were allowed to work outside of the box which comes so naturally to kids until we educate it out of them.

As a young hockey player, I suffered numerous concussions playing hockey. In those days even if knocked out cold you were able to play on with the aid of smelling salts and if you could guess the number of fingers an unqualified “trainer” flashed before your eyes. And depending on the stakes at play and your worth to the team, such protocols were often waived if you could just get up off the ice without too much fanfare. Thankfully things are much different and again, enlightened by a couple of students past and present, I understand the need to reinvent oneself when faced with a life-altering injury. In each of these cases, I have seen how faced with adversity one has gone on to be a Ph.D. candidate looking to develop perceived exertion as an exercise prescription tool for people with spinal cord injury and coronary artery disease to maximize improvements in cardiovascular health. As well, unable to pursue her true sports passion she moved from competitive soccer to high-end cycling without skipping a beat. While the other helps kids with and without learning challenges to code among the many other things that she packs into her hectic high school graduation year.

As I said that the outset, I have borrowed W.C. Fields line about children and animals more than once. And clearly, I haven’t lived the line. When I have used it, it is often in response to having to speak after some youthful phenom has given an over the top eloquent valedictory address or a presentation to a parent gathering that has left me speechless from the content and delivery or by a nascent musician tickling the ivories in a fashion that belies their age. As a lifelong learner and educator, I continue to work with children because they teach me as much, and sometimes more than I teach them. How rewarding is that?


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