Finding Gratitude on the Front Lawn
Harvey Johnson

Dear St. Andrew’s Family,

My older sister was my first science teacher. In June of my third grade year, summer break had arrived, and Shelby announced that we would be taking an important walk. On our field trip to the pond across the street, she reminded us to keep our eyes open and not to forget any of the important things we saw: two turtles sunning themselves on rocks, a fishing line and bob hanging from a nearby tree. When we returned home, Shelby handed paper, pencils, and crayons to me and my younger sister. She asked us to write about what we saw from the morning and to make drawings. This was the first page in what would become a summer-long nature journal, and a life-long habit: the lesson of illustrating ideas with images has been with me throughout my teaching career.

Two Februarys ago, Shelby succumbed to cancer. That February was cold and dark, but March promised renewal. By Thanksgiving, Shelby’s death had lead me to an important lesson on impermanence, which I found in the The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski:

While we mostly associate impermanence with sadness and endings, it is not all about loss. In Buddhism, impermanence is often referred to as the “Law of Change and Becoming.” These two correlated principles provide balance and harmony. Just as there is constant “dissolving,” there is also constant “becoming”… Each moment is born and dies. And in a very real way, we are born and die with it. There is beauty to all this impermanence… In Idaho, outside the cabin where I teach, blue flax flowers live for a single day. Why do such flowers appear so much more magnificent than plastic ones? The fragility, the brevity, and the uncertainty of their lives captivate us, invite us into beauty, wonder, and gratitude. 

The fruits of impermanence are all around us. Today, I met with three teachers who each wanted to provide better learning opportunities for their students. One told me about a freshman who was exceedingly driven in her class. She wanted to help him plan an independent study of challenging problems, which would have the dual goals of stretching him and fostering a more robust growth mindset. The other two wanted to evolve aspects of their fourth quarter curricula to set students up for success in subsequent classes and get real time feedback that would help them measure the effectiveness of teaching interventions. Impermanence is the engine of learning: we find ourselves confused by an idea today, then understanding it so clearly that we can teach it tomorrow. 

After my meetings with teachers, I walk out on the Front Lawn, lost in thoughts about impermanence, the senior class, and their upcoming Commencement in May. I anticipate the poignant mixture of sadness and love that we’ll feel when we watch the newest alums joyfully collect their diplomas. And, before I know it, I have stumbled onto a patch of birdeye speedwell—the short-lived, very distant cousins of Ostaseski’s blue flax. Overcome by gratitude for the multitude of lessons on impermanence, I am thankful for our impermanent lives in this community, lived amongst such overwhelming beauty.

With love,
Harvey Johnson
Dean of Math and Science
hjohnson@standrews-de.org

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