home to roost

Posted by on April 14, 2016

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Home to Roost

By Kay Ryan

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

* * *

“Imagine the difference it would have made to your life,
had you been born into the house next door.”
– John O’Donohue (from Anam Cara)

A friend of mine named Joshua once told me a story that made a lasting impression on me. It was about cheese. Joshua is from South Carolina. His parents, who still live there, had some friends– an older couple– who made their own cheese and sold it within their small community. It was a particular kind of cheese, with a particular taste, because, of course, it was made in a particular spot, with particular cows, eating particular grass, and cultured by a particular kind of bacteria. One day, according to Joshua, some health authorities came in and imposed some regulations on this family and their homespun cheesemaking facility. They then had to follow a cleaning protocol prescribed by the governmental authorities (whether state or federal, I cannot recall). After complying, they found that the particular bacteria they had relied on for their cheese had been wiped out by their stringent cleaning. And that was that: the end of the road for this poor cheese. It was missed thereafter by Joshua’s parents and those who had enjoyed it regularly.

One time I made my own sourdough starter. This is relatively simple to do, as it only requires mixing flour and water, letting it sit for a day, stirring it, adding more flour and water the next day, stirring, and so on, for several days. Eventually, the mixture will get frothy and start to smell sour (not foul), and you know that it has caught wild yeast from the air, and that yeast has started to multiply and come alive. And this means, of course, that the sourdough bread I make in my kitchen would taste different than the sourdough bread you might make in your kitchen. Because the wild yeast floating through the air at my house would not be the same as the wild yeast floating through the air in your house one thousand miles away. (Did you know that there is wild yeast floating through your house?)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the tension that exists between particularity and sameness, uniqueness and standardization, local flavor and mass produced, soft-serve vanilla. The school where I work and also send my children is young and quite unique. It is urban, being in the middle of a city neighborhood, occupies a large, old, formerly vacant brick school building, and uses a curriculum that is a mash-up of many educational resources but is primarily guided by the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator. The words upstart and grassroots would both apply, as it began as a homeschooling co-op only six years ago. The two co-heads who began the school never expected that it would grow as quickly as it has. After only six years the student body now includes over 160 children and the board of trustees is guiding the school through an accreditation process. Every staff member is participating in this and going through reams of questions, assessing every aspect of our school’s inner workings according to a very particular rubric.

The word “data” is suddenly being used quite a bit as our school realizes areas where it has, as of yet, no cache of data to speak of. And while part of me is excited that our school is undergoing this process, which will result in inevitable improvements and the correction of blind spots, another part of me is sorrowful and a little worried that the time of our school being below the radar is coming to an end. When not everything is sorted into neat categories, there is room for human brilliance and raw talent that also may have gone uncategorized and unrecognized until it was given a small-scale venue in which to prove itself. I have observed how in a shoe string operation, everyone has to work really hard to keep the things moving forward; they have to dig down and excavate all the raw talent that is within, knowing that it is wanted and needed. Official qualifications are not as important as jumping in and showing that you can do something with excellence and competence. One of the most ironic realities of our school is that the woman who wrote our curriculum (which I think is absolutely brilliant) although she is of course educated and has more than twenty years of teaching experience, is technically not a certified teacher. Meanwhile, without saying anything disparaging, certified teachers are rather common– are they not?–while coming up with people who can craft an entire curriculum for preschool through sixth grade– one that works really well, no less– would result in a very short list. But as our school goes through certification, all of the teaching staff will have to submit to one or another path to certification.

I appreciate the value of standardization– of taking something that works and duplicating it across a broad swathe. I shop at IKEA and Costco like a normal American and appreciate the principle of a bed frame and peanut butter cheaply priced because it can be produced and sold in massive quantities. It works, and everyone benefits. But I also fear standardization is a bit of a sweeping force that tends to flatten everything and everyone in its path, rendering the need for human quirkiness, brilliance, and resourcefulness moot. I think standardization is great when it is great. But the dark side of standardization is when people stop using their brains– such as when people drive into the desert because their GPS told them to, or wipe out a local strain of cheese, which, for all anyone knows, might be the closest thing Appalachia ever had to Gruyere.

This post is already several days late and I fear that my dear friend Amber might be mildly annoyed with me for letting down my end of our recently struck bargain to get back into blogging. So I am going to post this even though it is one of those times when I thought I had a lot more to say about these ideas, and this post feels half-baked to me, even after lots of attempts to finish it. Thanks for bearing with me, Amber, and the two or three others out there who read my blog. And Happy President’s Day, by the way. I made a triple batch of granola bars today and I’m about to make a triple batch of lentil soup as well. My kids have been entertaining themselves well all day without screens! Conclusion: President’s Day is a much better holiday than Valentine’s Day, which– my husband and I both agree– is typically an awful holiday.