Holding on tightly

Andrew just left to go to Perth for our friend David’s funeral. I only met David a few times, but we bonded over teaching, and of course over Andrew. Andrew, David, and David’s brother Mike, grew up together. They were brothers in all but DNA. After David and his family moved to Perth in his teens, they were only sporadically in contact but they remained inescapably connected.

And now he’s gone. Andrew packed his things for the flight in my cousin Chris’s backpack, which we inherited when Chris died. Tonight we’ll eat dinner in some bowls that also belonged to Chris. We might serve the veggies with the silver spoon my beloved friend James gave me before he died, so that I would have something to remember him by. I didn’t need the spoon, James has a permanent and dedicated room in my heart.

If Marg hadn’t died a few weeks ago I would call her to touch base around now. I’m wearing the earrings I bought when raiding Vic market with Di way back in first year uni, some years before a car accident robbed her of a future and me of the other half of my brain.

Together, and with many others, they made me who I am. I am built on the foundations of all the people I have ever loved. There are pieces of them embedded in my heart, but they take pieces of me with them when they die. I am broken afresh by each new death, and rebuilt by every friendship.

Each new loss is a body blow, knocking me off balance and off course.

Look down,
The ground below is crumbling.
Look up,
The stars are all exploding.
Hey yeah, hey yeah oh oh
Hey yeah, hey yeah
It’s the last, day on earth,
In my dreams, in my dreams,
It’s the end, of the world,
And you’ve come back, to me.
In my dreams.
Kate Miller-Heidke, Last Day on Earth

Last night in my dreams I was having an argument with my Dad. I woke to find him still gone, and it was equal parts relief and regret. That’s a long story.

Every death interrupts a million stories. But it does not sever those connections. As Pratchett, himself now an echo, wrote: ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’

Memories remain. Love remains. Even as sadness is overwhelming. My Dad used to say that life was a chronic and ultimately fatal disease. Experience has taught me that the prognosis is acutely uncertain.

So gather your loved ones to you. Take that chance. Make that stand. Give life everything you’ve got. It’s uncertain, and precious, and capricious in the extreme. Grab it with both hands.

Taking us back up

Today I accidentally read some of the comments on an article about what I hope will be the demise of Trump. I have scrubbed and scrubbed and I still feel filthy. They make me angry. They make me despair. They are misogynistic, racist, xenophobic. They are a snapshot of the worst that humanity can be.

And that, right there, is what is killing us. Politicians like Tony Abbott, Pauline Hanson, and Donald Trump take us down. They foment all of the worst that we are, and brew it up into a sick and feverish storm of hatred and misery. Which often works. It got Abbott elected. I hope with all my heart it won’t get Trump elected, but at least until a few days ago it was looking all too plausible. I want to believe the chances have dropped, but he’s bloody good (by which I mean evil) at what he does.

There are too many ways in which we allow the world to take us down now. To reduce us to the lowest common denominator. The fear of otherness is whipped up into demands that Muslims should be locked out of our country for our own protection – notwithstanding the ones who were born here, and who are in fact in more danger because of all this fear than we “normal” “safe” Caucasians. No, Muslims are different, and therefore a threat.

Speaking as someone who has always been a little different, one way or another, I find that chilling.

So instead of reading about Trump, and Hanson, and others of their evil, demoralising ilk, I am increasingly turning to the people who inspire others, just by being themselves. They, too, are different, and that is immensely heartening.

I have a close friend who is vegan, because she wants to reduce her impact on the planet. She doesn’t talk about it much, and certainly doesn’t impose her beliefs on others. Where vegan food isn’t available she will go vegetarian without fuss. But she is busily making thoughtful, ethical decisions. She inspires me to think more about the impact of everything I do.

I have another friend who would be exceedingly cross with me for writing about him, so I shall endeavour to be vague enough that he remains safely anonymous. But he is an extraordinary inspiration. His work, his friendships, and much of his play are all focused on making the world a better place. He tries to think about the impact of everything he does. Wherever possible he chooses the companies he deals with by considering the ethics of their behaviour. If he sees a situation that needs fixing he damned well fixes it, if he possibly can. More often than not if he can’t do it alone he will mobilise the rest of the world to get it sorted. If he sees someone who needs help, he helps them. He feels a deep need to give back to the world. And the beauty of this is not just in the immediate impact of what he does. It’s in the way his behaviour changes the people around him. The ripples of his actions spread across the world. I am a better person for knowing him.

I have another friend who fosters guide dog puppies. She cares for them, loves them, bonds with them for a year, and then has to say goodbye. It’s brutal, but it’s crucial. How could guide dogs be provided to the blind if someone didn’t love them and care for them while they were puppies? We’re all pretty good at leaving things like that to “someone else”. This friend has stepped up to be that someone. Plus she posts pictures of the puppies online, which is a whole wave of positive energy right there.

A student of mine thought I was a little down last week, so he bought me a sonic screwdriver necklace to cheer me up. What is Trump against that sort of kindness and empathy?

I’ve written about people like this before – they are the sparkly people who polish the souls of the rest of us just by being nearby. They catch us when we fall. They lift us higher than we could rise alone.  I could write about the good people in my life 24 hours a day 7 days a week and not be finished in a year.

I think we need to spend more time talking about people like this, and less time listening to Trump and his corrosive ilk. Because even in disagreeing with Trump, even in ranting about how foul he is, he is taking us down. We are focusing on foul, stinking hatred. And I think it’s time we focused on love. Research has shown that being thankful positively changes your brain chemistry – so what impact do you imagine hatred has?

So let’s write about people helping each other. Let’s talk about the people who love and support us. Let’s be thankful for the good things in our lives. Research has shown that being thankful positively changes your brain chemistry , and even your health – so what impact do you imagine hatred has?

Lately I’ve been posting my thankful things to Facebook every day. And maybe some people find it mawkish or overly sentimental. I post political stuff too. I certainly get angry a lot – about injustice and cruelty, mostly. But there’s a lot of good in the world, too. I think maybe it’s time we started paying more attention to all the love.

Every single valedictory

Monday marks my sixth valedictory dinner. The sixth class of year twelves who will take a piece of my heart with them as they fly free into their amazing futures.

For my first valedictory dinner as a High School teacher I sang in a choir of people who felt more like friends than students. I couldn’t wrap my head around saying goodbye to them, even as I dwelt on their extraordinary potential.

It was impossible to imagine feeling that way about another class. They taught me everything about becoming a teacher, a huge amount about being human, and quite a lot about computer science – PhD or no.

Yet every year a new class enmeshes itself in my heart – winning my admiration, my trust, and my affection. I know teachers are supposed to be dispassionate – calmly objective observers of studentkind – but I can’t operate that way. Each new class has a claim on my heart like no other.

I don’t teach year twelve classes, but my year elevens are profoundly special to me, and I love seeing them around the corridors once they move on into year twelve, and finding out what they are up to. I always get teary when they leave. With any luck next year I will see them around Facebook, or when they come back and visit, so that I don’t really have to say goodbye.

Last year’s year elevens taught and challenged me in a host of new ways. They took on extraordinary challenges and produced amazing results. From the ones who were outspoken and passionate during class discussions to the ones who sat quietly, and when pressed would add just one well chosen but deeply insightful comment that sealed the debate.

From the ones who had been programming for years and took on the craziest problems, to the ones meeting programming for the first time who came away with astounding skills. Not to mention the one who wasn’t actually in the class but aced it anyway.

From the shy ones to the ones who are still seeking me out to talk to me about their projects. From start to finish, pass to high distinction, these are my people.

We shared insights into the nature of intelligence, and the need for privacy. We solved problems and questioned orthodoxy. We evaluated some amazingly unusable websites, and learnt new approaches to user centered design. We tackled real problems in computational science with some very bizarre data sets. And we gave variables some truly inexplicable names.

We stretched and challenged each other, and we laughed quite a lot. We searched, sorted, and danced our way through Computer Science and out into a wider understanding of ourselves, computation, science, and the world.

In just a few short days they will be done with school, and face the relentless barrage of those daunting exams, but whatever the outcome each and every one of them is a searingly bright star in the firmament of the world. Each and every one of them will light up the world in their own unique way.

Some of them will no doubt go on into Computer Science, and some won’t. But if they learnt as much from me as I learnt from them, they’ll have a great foundation for whatever they choose to do.