Friday, 26 November 2021

Identity, faith & imagination: Who am I?

Who am I? I suspect the answer for many people the honest answer is “it depends”. If a stranger was to walk up to you and say “Hi, I’m Frank, who are you”, how would you respond? You’d most likely start with your name. What follows is a type of social ‘dance’, as we reveal things about ourselves in order to present a certain persona. For a total stranger, your answer would probably be short, not giving too much away too quickly. The person’s gender and appearance might also shape your response, and what you will share. Our identity reflects many things, but what we share with others is always a representation of who we believe we are, or the person we wish to project that we are. In reality, only God knows us as we are, for he sees all, and knows all about us.


One of the great challenges within the school is that our students are constantly seeking to present themselves to the world in a particular way. Most people invest a lot of energy trying to project an image of who we think we are, or would like to be. We live in an age, where increasingly, people of all ages embrace varied media to build an identity, and present it to the world using Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Twitter and so on.

This reality begs the question, can anyone truly know us? Probably not, for we tend to withhold information from others. The one exception is God, who of course does know us as we truly are. As King David reveals in his famous Psalm 139:

1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

However, we can’t know our students or children as God does, but as teachers and parents, we need to get below the surface representations our students project each day, to understand who they truly are. As I wrote in my book ‘Education and Pedagogy for Life’, when our students arrive in our schools and classrooms, they don’t come as clean slates. They come with memories and hopes, and of course ‘baggage’ of all kinds. If a child has been subject to a domineering parent, or perhaps a level of poverty and trauma in the household, they will be positioned differently in the classroom and school community than the child from a stable and privileged past. They will also have a different sense of identity that reflects their lived experience.


Our students’ knowledge of the world and their place within it, are distilled from a
limitless array of experiences, stories, and memories. How can we help them to grow and mature in their understanding of self, and to develop secure and positive self-concepts? And it seems the imagination plays a part.

Ricoeur suggests “the imagination generates new metaphors for synthesizing disparate aspects of reality that burst conventional assumptions about the nature of things.” The imagination is not an alternative to perception but an important part of it. In a sense, our perceptions of who we are can be shaped in part by our imaginations.


Let me offer an example from my life. There were a number of moments in my childhood when specific events helped me to ‘imagine’ myself as someone other than who I thought I was, the second child, living in the shadow of my sister, who always seemed to be the favourite. But a simple event when I was about 10 years old helped to shift my attention away from who I wasn’t towards who I might just be one day become.


The memory, will seem somewhat trivial, but it had a long-term impact. Our household received a delivery of coal which was to be shared with a neighbour. The load was dumped in our driveway, and my father and the neighbour were moving half of the load by wheelbarrow next door. I was watching and my Dad and he said, “Here son, have a shovel”. I took the shovel and began moving the coal to give my Dad a break. But I continued for quite a while. Our neighbor turned to my Dad and said “Struth Henry, the boy shovels like a man”.

Why do I recall that event with such vivid clarity? Because it helped me to understand something about myself. I had an inner determination, energy and strength that I had demonstrated not just to others but also to myself. Such memories might seem inconsequential, but they represent life moments when the imagination and real life events collide and help us to see ourselves a little differently.

In my book, I share a variety of vignettes and stories that all to some extent seek to show the connection between identity, imagination and life. I also challenge teachers to think less about compliance and more about observation and formation. These communities of practice that we create as teachers really matter! Let me end with a quote from my 'Pedagogy & Education For Life' p.132:

“The distance between teacher and student is little more than a relational artefact. A classroom where there is compliance, where students do their work and perhaps even achieve highly, is not necessarily a transformative classroom…. Are we providing the relational contexts that are speaking into our students’ lives… Imagination is central to how our student minds are engaged, hopes are formed, aspirations are primed, friendships are conceived, and supported… Imagination also plays a key role in connecting who our students are, who they wish to become, and what is critical to their sense of belonging.”

No comments:

Post a Comment