~ by Christine Gough
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?” Everyone is probably familiar with those iconic lines, read more times than is countable to sleepy babies and toddlers while predicting who will be seen next. Bill Martin Jr. is known for his prose and stories and collaboration with Eric Carle who illustrated these classics.
In my classroom, we have been delving into another work of Bill Martin, Jr. with my students called Knots on a Counting Rope. In my opinion, worthy of “classic status” too, but you may not have heard of it.
In Knots on a Counting Rope, a boy, born blind, enlists his Grandfather to tell the story of his birth and of a horserace…to hear again and again the story of his life passed on orally so that he might remember it himself one day. Through some of the most beautiful language, Grandfather paints the picture of the Boy’s birth. The emotions are raw and the scene created is vivid. Boy connects with a horse who becomes his eyes. They become one, bonded in a deep way, allowing the boy to eventually compete in a horse race.
Dark mountains, the Grandfather narrates, were in the path, though. Inevitable. The boy faced many. Learning to sense the time of day without his own sight. Figuring out the path, without vision to guide him. Even the boy’s own birth which was wrought with health challenges. Dark mountains all around.
Grandfather reminds him that he has walked right up and through many hard times. Moments and situations filled with fear. And…the surprise? Grandfather doesn’t shy away from reminding him there will be dark mountains to come. That he’s not done with those looming fears. More await on the horizon.
I looked out into my classroom and the weight of this storyline felt a bit too real. So many dark mountains faced. So many to come. At home, I see those mountains, or maybe I start conjuring them up in my mind’s eye. Parenting often feels like one big, insurmountable dark mountain.
Both at home and at school, I have felt a push from God saying, “It’s time to face those dark mountains.” We took a moment yesterday at that fork in the road. These moments arise every year during the teaching cycle. That split second where the power of narrative and story give the opportunity to go deeper, get personal, be real.
We named the theme. We talked about why Bill Martin, Jr. would create characters like Grandfather whose traits of patience and love would push him to share hard truths with his Boy. Why would he remind this Boy that there was more to fear up ahead? That even after facing and conquering one of his biggest fears, he should dig in to wrestle more?
And then the hands shot up and the truth-telling started. Authentic, real, “these are my dark mountains” talk. Third graders like to bring it all back to themselves, their own stories and narratives. Often. But sometimes, letting them tell their own dark mountains, not in long drawn out confessions, but simple naming, is needed. Community is deepened. Fears are heard. Peers can support one another knowing they may face dark mountains at home, virtually alone, but at least at school, they have companions. People who can remind them they CAN make it through.
Moments after this classroom confessional, the texts started rolling in. At recess I glanced at my phone to see friends sharing kids’ illnesses. We have been battling our own stomach bugs in my house for the last six days and it has been a dark mountain, indeed. Most people are grounded and calm about such things, but not me. I am an anxiety – ridden mess when it comes to the flu.
Dark Mountain Numero Uno.
But the love flowed over the text messages. Humor was found. Bonds are strengthened as we walk through these real life, everyday, sometimes yucky moments….together.
I went to pick up my eldest from school later in the afternoon and saw four moms whose kids I adore and who I truly love as well. The moms. The teachers. The colleagues. The ones who bring you Gatorade, Kombucha and bubble wands to lift you up while climbing the dark mountain. Others who bring daffodils and cookies and sit with you after a long night without sleep. Neighbors who make soup and bring bread when you can’t leave home long enough to go to the store. Family who send email and walk you through the midst of the scary (going into the grocery store in workout clothes, sans bra, in dress shoes…a dark mountain all its own!). A husband who cleans up every known bodily fluid of sick kids as I cower in the corner, shaking.
It’s in these everyday moments that God speaks to me. God uses those around me to say, “You can do this. You’ve got this. You’ve done it before. Breathe and walk.” As we parent, may we remember the bold honesty of my students who named their mountains. To know that the challenges and fears are not taken away with a big POOF by our great God. But that in naming those places, by walking with others in their dark moments, we are given the reminder that we aren’t alone. That in the fearful places yet to come, we will have what we need to keep walking, even when the path begins to wind up a dark mountain.