Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Shivering Excitement


Learning and Education, Parenting


You would think that I would be accustomed to being astonished by now, but I’m not. Every day I look, watch, engage and share with Carly Elizabeth in a fresh state of complete amazement. Z, Carly and I walked to the mailbox last evening, Carly pulling a red wagon. “This way,” she said. A wheel got stuck. “Mommy, help, please.” A few blinks ago I needed to lean down to walk with Carly, her tiny hand holding my outreached finger. Not today. Her body has changed, lengthened like a gymnast. She is still quite little but in so many ways Carly seems so grown up, free, keenly observant, not preoccupied, exploring everything. I said to Z, “Carly is so adaptable.” Carly replied, “a-dap-table.” Her diction wasn’t perfect but the capacity to listen and mimic each syllable of a very complex multi-part word was indeed astonishing, and so spontaneous. Yesterday it was a word, today sentences. This morning Carly brought Curious George to her breakfast buffet and removed his red shirt. “George is naked,’ she declared. Carly has entered into a new realm. Each sentence is a story and story. This inner narrative of increasingly complex abstractions will shape her life and the world. Her innate sensitivity and explosive capacity roars on like a freight train, full speed ahead.

Learning and expanding is what the human brain is designed to do, along with a million other miracles. And the key to this truly miraculous blossoming is the environment. Plant a seed in sand and pray that it sprouts. Plant the same seed in rich moist soil warmed by the sun and kissed by the rain and bingo, you have a forest. Our bodies are that rich soil for our children. The tone of our voice is the rain. The warmth of our touch is the sun. The environments we live and play in are the dynamic artists that sculpt what Carly and every child will become. And this becoming is not a lecture, not a class. It is not a curriculum. I wasn’t ‘teaching’ Carly the word ‘adaptable,’ and this difference between spontaneous, intrinsic wonder, curiosity and discovery and ‘teaching’ is one of my main aversions to the behavior modification we call schooling. All this learning takes place beneath what we might call self-conscious awareness. If the plant is drooping, don’t blame or spank the plant. Water the soil. Uplift and improve the environment, and we are that.

I, with my greying hair, and Z being almost a generation younger, busy entrepreneurs, her family in central Europe, mine a bit tattered and scattered, are not surrounded by the traditional extended family, which I appreciate is the new norm. There are a number of families with children of various ages in the neighborhood. We wave occasionally, passing like ships in the dark, smile and fail to connect. On a bulletin board at the library (remember libraries?) was a small notice for a local Forest School lead by Tracy, passionate and engaged with twenty years of experience with young children, a masters degree in early childhood education, an apprenticeship with Bev Bos, a new teaching diploma from the Waldorf Academy and a deep interest in the insights of Alfie Kohn. I love Alfie too. Carly will be adding to this forest experience two days a week. In today’s world, the forming of community is intentional. One touch leads to another and like dominos you are surrounded by caring like-hearted individuals to share the journey. You have to create community. It doesn’t just happen.

My limited understanding of the Forest School experience is pretty simple: no walls, multi-age children who are natural and spontaneous learners self-organize play=learning activities motivated by wonder and curiosity, are placed in enriched environments, nature and woodlands being just that. Dult organization is minimal, parents are restrained from hovering. Ideally children feel completely safe, free and unobserved. The environment is the teacher.

Another life changing event in Carly’s and our lives is imminent. Barbora, a twentyish Czech Au Pair will be joining our family for the next year. Now is the most explosive period of language development in Carly’s life. Z has been speaking Czech with Carly in their shared time since birth. Barbora, like a big sister, will help us play and care for Carly and she will dramatically add to Carly’s (and my) bilingual development, and we will help Barbora with her English and introduce her to life at Disneyland; life changing, indeed, for us all.

There is a small river and woodland area near our home. After her afternoon siesta Carly and I sang our way to this quiet place where the Forest School will meet in a few weeks. We dangled our toes in the cool water and tossed a few rocks. I slipped in. Off came Carly’s smiling sun shirt and pants. Jump, I said. Shivering with excitement she jumped into my waiting arms. Our first swimming experience was during our visit to grandma’s and grandpa’s home not far from Prague. Carly held onto my outstretched arm and kicked her way into the river and back to the rocky sore. “Again,’ she said, and jumped.

Do you remember shivering with excitement? At eighteen I became one of the youngest certified scuba instructors in the United States. I will never forget my first ocean snorkeling experience in Laguna Beach, age eight or nine. Mask in place, head down, kicking like a frog, I gazed at the rocky sea bottom just a few inches away. I was shivering with excitement just like Carly holding onto my arm. I think children shiver with excitement all the time. We are so boring by comparison. And yet, this river was a new experience for me. This moment had never been before. The movement of the river, the light dancing off the leaves, everything, including Carly and me was new if we know how to look. Being with Carly helps me remember to look and shiver with excitement once again. “Done,” she said. We wrapped in towels, snuggled a bit and savored a fig newton, tossing a few more rocks, just the two of us and the ever-changing stream.

Michael Mendizza