Re-imagining places

“A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person”

Milan Kundira – The Unbearable Lightness of Being


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For the second time in four months (at the indulgence of my family), I had the extraordinary pleasure to hike the Turaco Trail in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. Alone. For the benefit of any readers (since my family know this), I shall state right here, that I love my family more than my own life and would rather be with them than anything else, ever. However, as confirmed, ardent introvert, time alone is relished, and rejuvenates. That slither of space alone on the edge of our land is as good a place to find this space as any other.

Six awesome things (not necessarily in hierarchical order) vis a vis the recent endeavour:

  1. Solitude
  2. Spectacular beauty
  3. Technological isolation
  4. Physical activity
  5. Hennessy Hammock
  6. Drawing

I should spend a moment defining this sojourn within the framework of Kundera above, or rather, using the space as a means of defining “the place where [I] live”. There is no discontent being part of a familial unit; indeed the contrary, as stated. The idea of a wholesale move of family, homestead and work to the Eastern Highlands seems attractive. It is possible that it may improve my “place” of abode. Yet it would destroy that place, and in doing so, render this lesser; though not polemical, it is arguable that one may exist only as the other does, and since it is unspoilt and damn-near perfect, let’s not fiddle with that! (Besides which I can see this unfolding into a discussion way beyond this brief text…).

So let think for a moment on a third characteristic: technological isolation (lol, so-called). (There is a real place like that – “The Quiet Zone”, 34 000 square km near the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, where the Green Bank Telescope listens to radio waves emitted milliseconds after the birth of the universe ( http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32758042 ). But it wasn’t really like that of course, I carried a shortwave radio in case of emergency, and my iPhone (my camera, video-cam map and compass (!)). Whilst most apps, including social media, were deleted to give longer battery life, communication ones were not. In certain spots (such as the peak of Mt. Nyangani), one receives and transmits welcome SMSs and What’s Apps from family; Are you ok? Are you having fun? At the other end of the mountains will you be as happy to see me as I will you?

Between those welcome communiques there was the inevitable barrage of banners and alerts of other communications, some of which in that context (to be specific, a 360 degree view from the highest point in the country), were less warmly received. Dialogues of various group chats, images and questions from students, messages from colleagues, etc.. Everything from There, was Here. What was so clearly revealed was firstly, that solitude requires considerable more design now, than previously, and that secondly, the greyed out, blurred (lost/obliterated/removed)lines of personal and professional spaces which we (I?) have become so accustomed to (designed/constructed/created) had ever so slightly, a tinge of a place I wanted to leave. Or if not leave, then more carefully and thoughtfully recreate.

Who designed the framework of that place, and what is it? Are we all part of it? I certainly own my part: “You have my number, use it – if I am free I will reply, if not, I will when I get a chance”(“my number” – maybe that says enough?). Digital images of drawings, paintings and sculptures, assessed and returned. Visual arts in binary for the progressive (or procrastinating) teacher and learner. A gradually, never-quite-considered construction employing new technologies. Opening communications, speeding up the pace of information-swapping, exchange of ideas and organising seemingly immediate tomorrows. Student to teacher, teacher to student; Supervisor to prefect, head to group; colleague to colleague, HOD to cleaner: Phone. voicemail. Video. Email. Skype. Google Classroom. What’s App. IM. Twitter. Tumblr.

I am a teacher. The best “place” in this regard is one in which the best possible learning can take place. Is this really it? This is not an unusual, profound or new question, indeed, rather run-of-the-mill. But it is mine, this week. I do not think, as I write, and as I did a month ago, that any student’s work will really be better by having me assist them once school has closed for the day. In fact, it seems more likely, that I am in fact facilitating the removal of the quintessential and defining aspect of my subject: A personal space to search, explore, err and discover. I suppose, both these things within reason. I think, as I write today, that as I remove those spaces from my students, I clutter my own. There is the possibility that this place has become slightly stained.

I would hate that it became a place to “long to leave”.

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OBSERVATIONS

  1. I follow some astronauts and cosmonauts on Twitter, who tweet from the ISS. Awesome.
  2. iPhone does not need mobile data to use satellite navigation. It can monitor one’s position on the Avenza Pdf map to within one metre. Also amazing.
  3. As well as being highly rewarding, the position of “teacher” is a very difficult one. One in which (in a curious reversal of the old report adage “room for improvement”) there is an endless capacity and space to do, or have done “more”.

Greg Shaw, 11 September 2015.

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