I consider myself to be a fairly crafty person. In my life as a Religious Educator and as a theatre director/educator, I have spent countless hours with paper and glue and duct tape and glitter. There are many days when you will find me scouring the internet in search of the perfect craft for a class of 4 year olds or seeking inspiration to costume a new production. Of all the crafts that I have encountered, there is one that has always eluded me, origami. I am fascinated by the intricate folds that magically create every object imaginable and yet, I don’t seem to have the knack for this particular art form.
A few years ago, I was scouring the internet to find the perfect crafts for our annual Christmas tree decorating party at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia (UUCC). It is a task that could be seen as trivial and yet, as an educator, it is important to me that the crafts are not only age appropriate and fun but that they give our kids the opportunity to create things that will be a real contribution to our community. In my search that year, I was one project short. In desperation, I googled, “easy origami birds.” Note the word “easy” in that search. I clicked through several pages until finally, I found a swan that seemed to match my non-existent origami skills. I took out a sheet of paper and much to my surprise, I was able to create my first origami project; a small white swan.
A few days later, I was sitting in a room full of paper, glue, glitter and excited UUCC kids. I visited each table in the room to show our kids how to create each craft. At one point, I sat next to Jack Dorsey* who was about 10 at the time. I took him through the steps to create the origami swan and when we were done, he said, “You showed me how to do this and now I can show someone else.” As an educator, it was one of those moments, in a series of moments spent with kids, that stopped me in my tracks. All that I could think was, “Wow, this kid really gets what it is all about.” I searched for the right words to express my admiration to Jack in that moment and all that I could come up with was, “You are one smart kid, Jack.” He smiled and then continued to fold paper.
In my 30 years spent in rooms full of kids, I have learned that there are many ways, both literal and metaphorical, to fold paper. Many years ago, when I was employed as an Artist in Residence with the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival (BSF), I spent my evenings in one costume or another as a performer and my days in high schools directing productions of Shakespeare as part of the BSF education program. One year, my mornings were spent in a theatre magnet high school directing a production of Hamlet and my afternoons were spent in a vocational technical high school directing another production of Hamlet. In both schools, we made community building and accountability our top priorities. One afternoon, I arrived for rehearsal at the vocational school to find one of our cast members missing. We attempted to contact him to no avail. The next day, I arrived to find him missing from rehearsal again and no one seemed to know where he was. Finally, the next day, he came back to rehearsal. In the spirit of accountability, I walked up to him and asked him why he had missed rehearsal. This bright, beautiful, 16 year old child stood in front of me, in full Shakespearian garb, and quietly said, “I was arrested. I’m sorry that I wasn’t here.” As a fairly young educator, it was a moment that stopped me in my tracks and for several seconds, made me lose my breath. I struggled to process the shame I felt as my place of privilege in the world had never once let me conceive of the fact that he might have been arrested. I struggled to find adequate words to fully express my admiration to him. After what he had been through in the previous days, the idea that he would come back to complete the trivial task of performing in a play seemed inconceivable to me. The only instinct I had was to hug him and ask him if he was ok, to tell him that he had nothing to be sorry for; to ask if he wanted to talk about it, or if there was anything that I could do. He allowed the hug, told me that he was ok, but didn’t want to talk about it. To this day, I don’t know why he was arrested; as guests in the school, we were not privy to that information. I don’t know the details of his life’s journey. All that I know is that for whatever reason, he came back to perform Hamlet. He came back to our community. He came back to, if you will, fold paper with us.
Working with kids is messy. It is full of glitter and glue. It’s loud and exhausting. It’s full of life stories that we don’t quite understand. It is a constant mine field of wondering if you have done the right thing and said the right words. But so often, the kids in my life remind me that all they are really asking for is that we show up and fold paper with them. They don’t seem to care if our folding skills are prefect. They seem to care only about having the opportunity to be part of and contribute to our communities.
I am still really bad at origami. I have never progressed past the simple swan but I continue to be fascinated by the art of folding paper in all its forms. At our tree decorating party just a few weeks ago, I was standing in front of the tree and I heard a little voice say, “Miss. Kelli!” I looked down to see 4 year old Niko Jorgensen* who was showing me a paper ornament that he had just made. I was stopped in my tracks again, not because of the ornament but because I had no idea that he knew my name and had certainly never heard him say it until that very moment. Wow! And just like that, I’m inspired to keep folding.
*All names used with permission