There’s just something about sitting in a circle. Where everyone faces everyone. There’s no front row and no back row. No first and no last. In fact, no ordination at all. Everyone is equal and opposite the other — literally.
This was my first experience with what Alta Vista Elementary School calls a “restorative circle.” Hosted by a guidance counselor, the circle was small; there were only 6 of us and we were selected for the opportunity. We had all participated as volunteer tutors for children in the school, but none of us knew what the circle held. We assented as guinea pigs; the circle experience was a demonstration of this technique for the gathering of volunteers at a breakfast that was held in thanks for our efforts.
It was a feel-good kind of thing. You know, where the coordinator has gone to way too much trouble to prepare place settings for each of us, with name places personalized by our students, and there is entertainment provided via performance from the student choir. Wouldn’t you know that Jayden, my reading buddy, would be right there on the end near me. He gave me that big smile and then waved – yes he did! – before the whole group sang “You’ve got a friend in me” and then, “I can see Clearly Now.”
I can see clearly now the rain is gone.
I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.
It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day….
Oh, yes I can make it now the pain is gone.
All of the bad feelings have disappeared.
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for.
It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies.
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies.
Yeah, hey, it’s gonna be a bright, bright
Oh, children, if I could only make it so. … Don’t cry, I’m telling myself, Do not blather. Do not embarrass yourself. He might see you.
So, after the snacks are finished and the singers dismissed to rousing applause, I was pretty much a puddle when Ms. Francis, the Counselor, called us to come to the circle and take the seats indicated by name placards. She had prepared a few questions for us.
She took it easy on us with the first one: “Fill in the blank. ‘I am _________.'”
Ms. Francis offered her response and then passed the “talking pig.” I think it was a pig. Anyway, it was a small pink stuffed animal with over-sized, welcoming eyes, and it was meant to be held along with the microphone. When you had her, you could talk. When you didn’t, you were to listen. Little did I know what power little pink pigs had.
Happily, I was seated in the middle of the circled group so I didn’t have to answer first, but the woman to the counselor’s left volunteered to, and geez, she had a wonderful answer. I had no clue what I would say, and this was just the first question. They would get harder, more reflective, and require more thought, Ms Francis had warned. Sheesh.
Fortunately, the “audience” of other volunteers couldn’t see my discomfort, since my back was to them. This felt a bit disrespectful, but the circle had to be closed. At least this way I couldn’t gauge reactions from their faces. Did my words strike a cord? Were my answers well-received? Oh my, this was supposed to be a feedback session; when did it become a performance?
After delightful and heart-warming expressions from the first three people in the circle, my response to the “I am” question seemed a bit cold. “I am a person of words,” I said, and passed the pig. Short and sweet and true to my core. Onto the next question.
Not so fast. The counselor looked at me and said, “So, you’re a person of words,” with a tone that promised she’d get back to me. Whoa. What had I left myself open for? “Written words,” I said, demonstrating with my writing hand. In my spot halfway ’round the circle, I had thought I was safe. Apparently the pig can begin anywhere she wants.
Counselor smiled. Next question: “What was the most memorable experience that you had while working as a volunteer?”
She passed the pig left this time as apparently stuffed pigs are ambidextrous. This time, I knew exactly what to share. The first day Jayden and I met, I didn’t know what to do at the close of our session. Fortunately, another volunteer who saw my quandary pointed me to the “prize bin” where students could pick out a sticker as a reward for their efforts. Jayden carefully sifted through and selected a sticker for himself, but he didn’t stop with just one. Uh oh. What if there weren’t enough for all the children? I thought. Should I stop him from being greedy?
Before I could say anything, he had chosen a small pink star which he proceeded to stick on my name tag.
“You deserve a sticker, too,” he told me. Wow. What a heart this child had. How did he know that I was as much in need of reassurance as he was?
This story elicited smiles, aws and knowing looks from the group in the restorative circle, but also evoked a chorus of aws from the larger group behind me. Had I been concerned that what touched my heart wouldn’t touch theirs, I need not worry.
As promised, the questions got tougher. Next: “What words of wisdom or advice would you give to a new volunteer?”
Oh my, here came the pig straight across the circle directly to the ‘woman of words’ and I had none. I was a rookie volunteer in a circle full of veterans. What wisdom did I have? Fortunately, Bev Bramley, the volunteer coordinator who was seated to my left, saw my discomfort and took possession of the pig. I think she called an audible in the Circle process, but I gladly conceded it. Unfortunately, I don’t even recall what Bev said because I was busy racking my brain for an acceptable answer to this question.
I expect that this is NOT how the restorative circle process is supposed to work. This is perhaps why the counselor hesitated and then only acquiesced to the “pig-stealing” procedure. Each member of the circle is to be allowed to sit and think for a while, in order to process and decide what to say. No pressure to speak. No pressure to pass. No one to rescue us from our indecision or to speak for us.
We may choose to pass the pig, but it must be our choice. When we decline our turn to speak, then we can fully listen. But, if we’re rescued from our discomfort while still cogitating, the burden of what to say? occupies our mind and blocks our ears. There is not room for us to listen to ourselves and the other. How quickly we default to the world’s way: speak up, speak quickly, or get off the podium.
We are not comfortable with silence.
When the pig came back to me, I looked it straight in the eye and still had nothing. Ironically, I found that staring at a stuffed pink pig in that moment was oddly comforting. Perhaps because I am not a polished impromptu speaker, never a debater and not much of linguistic opponent, I tend to take my cues from my companions. Had I looked around the circle or around the room, the stares of impatience would probably have prompted me to pass. The pig said, ‘take your time.’
“Just say yes,” were the words of advice I landed on. That was good advice for me in that circle. Let the conversation take its own course. You’re not the driver, you’re a passenger, take your seat. The other members of the circle, with so much more experience than I and such huge hearts for these kids, then recounted wisdom I would have gladly taken down in my notepad. If I had had one. What kind of a word-person am I? … First, listen…
As time drew short, Ms.Francis had one more prepared question: “Have you ever been in a situation in which you learned something valuable from a student?”
Oh my yes. Every time I met with them. But my first reaction was, I learned that I didn’t know 4th grade math. Having raised three daughters through the public school system and after spending much of my career teaching at the college level, this was a bit of an embarrassing admission for me. Humbling.
I was not alone. Stories overlapped as we recalled instances of new understanding when the honesty of our students in the reality of their circumstances opened new eyes for us. “I realized… I took for granted… I didn’t know…” we all said. What surfaced for me was Jayden’s toss-off comment that he needed to stop calling his step dad by his first name. That was setting the wrong example for his two much younger sisters who should be calling him Dad. “I already have a Dad,” Jayden said matter-of-factly, “but they should call him Dad.” So he would.
Wow. For a 9 year old boy to sacrifice his own deep feelings in the interest of others, especially young formative others whom he called siblings, showed wisdom way, way beyond his years. Oh, what the world could learn from this young man, if it listened.
We closed our “restorative circle” experience by trying to put words to the experience we had just had. The Counselor smiled. “Even though I have never met any of you before, I feel like I should give you all a hug.” We laughed along, but the feeling was certainly mutual. Something had just transpired among us. Within us? Between us? What was it?
Surely powers greater than us were at work here. We, mere strangers, had gathered on common ground, circling around children whom we loved for the sake of love. That was the place from which each one spoke, heart to heart and hand to hand. That was some pig!
God-willing, we’ll all be back to volunteer again next year because there will be more students who need us. We will always have the poor with us, we are told. And I am certain they will continue to inspire us, teach us and humble us, each time we sit together and honor the wisdom in the other in the way love does.
Reluctantly, we broke our circle of new friends, settling for a culminating group high-5 before returning to our seats to collect our volunteer gift booty. Jayden’s face smiled at me again from the center of a construction paper flower, which had been lovingly glued to a Popsicle stick, dug firmly into the soil of a sprightly purple flowering plant. It was the school’s gift to take with me. But Jayden was the real gift: kindness, empathy, wisdom and insight, packaged in a smiling 9 year old boy who also sings.
As I turned to leave, a man carrying his volunteer gifts stopped me with a kind word. “It was a shame they didn’t video that,” he said, “but I heard you say you’re a writer.” He paused and smiled. Funny, in all this listening, it hadn’t occurred to me to write. Perhaps there were words of wisdom, after all.
Let me see. … There’s just something about sitting in a circle…