Wednesday 14 May 2014

Swansong, Materialized

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

Credit: Mother Teresa Middle School

My interest in origami has been previously documented. Throughout the past six months, I have had the privilege to share this interest with the students in the form of an after school program at Mother Teresa Middle School (MTMS) in Regina, Canada. Origami can be a highly individualistic pursuit: grab a piece of paper, follow the instructions, and voilà, a new creation made. While I was quite content with teaching the kids different designs and such, I also wanted them to learn more than just folding things for themselves. That was why I decided to swing for the fences with the kids: we began an ambitious yet different origami project together.

We embarked on a journey of modular origami for the past month. It is essentially making the same, simple triangular pieces out of paper, and stacking them into a predetermined shape. This is drastically different from “regular” origami, where the predetermined shape is completed with only one sheet of paper. Being an origami purist, I personally think that modular origami deserts from the spirit of origami. That being said, I do think that the kids would learn much from this experience. As I jokingly tell my friends, “I don't believe in modular origami; I only believe in the kids.” Our goal was to build a swan. A huge swan. This was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story The Ugly Duckling. Here are a few things that I have learned from this experience:

More than just paper”: It would have been quite easy if I was just teaching the kids something mechanical that they were to mindlessly follow. The thing about origami – be it regular or modular – is that we often cannot envision the end product during the process. Origami does not guarantee any instant gratification. This is especially the case with our giant swan project. It teaches perseverance, team work and dedication. This is something that we adults understand for the most part, but it is not at all the case with kids. This was why I had a “delayed gratification” speech with them at the beginning of the project. I think I had enough of the students on board with the idea, but certainly not all. What I have discovered was that it was much easier for them to buy into the project once they have seen how the fruit of their labour would turn out. The level of enthusiasm was night and day between Week One (building the base of the swan, and looking nothing like it) and Week Three (stacking the pieces to build the body of the swan as it began to take shape).

Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither was the swan. If this was the case with inanimate objects over which we have control, how much more so would this be with students? What is at stake is not the transmitting of knowledge through a USB flash drive, but rather the transformation of a person in the tradition of cura personalis. I hope that those aforementioned life skills would resurface again for the students in the long run. I have done my part; now it is between them and the Lord.

Letting go”: This was recalled to me by one of the MTMS teachers. The kids were at the swimming pool for one of their afternoon programs, and they would take turn to get into the water. Therefore, they would have to keep themselves occupied during the wait. Apparently, quite a few of the kids asked the teacher for paper so that they could do origami. I know for a fact that many were not working on the designs that I had taught them. Initially, I felt that they found my origami classes uninteresting enough to not repeat the designs. Then I came to the realization that this was actually a good thing: They were not attracted by specific origami designs, but rather origami in general. It is not “the stuff that Mr. Lo taught”, but rather the spirit behind it. They begin to see the bigger picture in the world of origami, and I am called to let go of my own ego and do the same. At the very least, I suppose I can take credit for introducing and fostering their interest in such endeavour.

Time well spent”: From the beginning of the swan project, I was hell-bent on its would-be completion. I even kept a computer spreadsheet to track our progress. I was also cognizant that I was not there to crack the whip and ensure that they finished the job. I tried to find a niche for each of the kids to contribute in the best way possible, but the best part was getting to know the kids as persons, and vice versa. I am a firm believer in that transformations take place through the organic interactions between persons, just as we are transformed most deeply through personal encounters with the Lord in whatever way. At the end of the day, they may not remember any of the origami designs that they have tried; they may even forget about the swan with time, as spectacular as it may be. But friendship goes a long way, and sometimes we are unaware of how we have been transformed in the flesh, as Christ meets us in the flesh. If I can see them as friends in the Lord, then the time is well spent.

(You can also check out this video which documents how the swan project took shape.)