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The Nature of Respect

People-watching can become a hobby when you are in the middle of learning about connection and disconnection within the human community. It is almost insane how much one begins to pay attention to the little details of life that everyone seems to miss. The next time you go out to eat, just take a few moments to look around. How many people are communicating with each other? How many smiles can you see? How many people are embracing each other, touching each other, or emanating their love to the others in their party through body language and facial gestures? We can even go a little further and ask, “How many people are smiling at others outside their group?” Connection is more than just spending time together. It starts with that, but it cannot end there.

As I sit here, looking back over the pictures of my students, I notice something very foreign in our world today. I see community, and it makes me smile, not just on my face, but all the way down to the core of my soul. I see physical touch and smiling faces. Community develops not just in spending time together, it is much more than that…

Kids come into the group with modern ideology, no matter where or who they come from. These concepts are not parent taught, they came from our society. My students tend to come from very liberal thinking families, and even though our society claims to be open-minded and inclusive, I see the truth every day in the children that I work with, and I know the parents, so I know it is not them. For example, one young boy was walking and talking to another young boy and without thinking reached out and held the other boy’s hand, “Man, why are you holding my hand? It makes me feel weird.” The other responds, “I’m sorry, I hold my mama’s hand when we walk and talk, so I just do it without thinking.”

First of all, I need to mention that I was extremely proud of both of them, because they communicated with each other in a way that most adults now days cannot. However, it was obvious that society had taken hold of them already. Holding hands with another person of the same sex is weird and labels you. We have become a nation of non-touching people, who have reserved physical touch for the very closest of our relationships. Teachers are afraid to touch their students, friends are afraid to touch their friends, and strangers would never even think about it. A young boy had done what seemed natural to him, and his natural inclination was rejected as weird because of fear…the fear of being labeled something he was not. I still hold my teenagers’ hands. In fact, I walked around my entire neighborhood holding my sixteen year-old son’s hand, because I dared him that he could not do it. He showed me he could.

In looking back and reminiscing, it occurred to me that our rejection of the physical world had led to our rejection of physical touch, which is necessary for human connections, happiness, and overall well-being. To reject nature is to reject ourselves – our humanness. I teach the children to touch the trees, the soil, and breathe in the scent of the forest…to embrace the world. So, why would I not teach them to embrace each other?

We added a new student to our group this week, and the kids began to tell her about the FeeFee Tree. In conversation, one of the boys (an avid video gamer) used ‘her’ and ‘she’ as the pronouns instead of it. The young girl asked, “How do you know it’s a girl and not a boy?” Of course, I was listening for his response, since he had been such a skeptic up to that point. He shocked me by his response, he said matter-of-factly, “Because I talk to her.” My heart jumped in my chest and tears came to my eyes. There is no joy like the joy a teacher feels when the skeptic finally believes!

This week in the forest, the kids called a council meeting to decide what to do next with the FeeFee Tree. I sat in the circle as the girls took over. They decided to use a talking stick, so that no one over spoke another. I listened as they all discussed who should be the leader, and voted on it. They told me that I was the elder and they would come to me for advice because I held great wisdom. I was honored. Again, I smiled, they were forming a community, the forest was their world, and the FeeFee Tree was their home. She is their council and gathering place. In building the walls of their council place, they used the sticks they found lying on the ground, but one of the girls found a stick that smelled like cedar, and even though it was not, the smell was amazing. She broke the stick to reveal the redness of the center and took it around so everyone could smell it. Almost immediately, she apologized to the branch, “I am so sorry, I feel really bad about this, but you smell so good, and I want you to be our smelling stick.” She placed it in the council house. She did not abandon the idea of using the branch, but she realized that she was taking and that it was giving, and she offered her respect. I noticed that they were treating each other the same way, with respect. I have never witnessed this kind of respect in the places I have worked.

The pictures reveal the connection between the children and the place they have come to love. There is a sense of peace and belonging. They touch each other all the time, not in a bad way, but in a healthy way. They help carry each other’s packs, the older ones carry the younger ones when they get tired, or each other when one gets hurt. They take turns, help each other, encourage each other, and uplift each other. In all this, they are forming connections – they are forming community.

“Man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; [the Lakota] knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too”

~ Luther Standing Bear (c. 1868-1939)


Deanna has a Master’s Degree in Education, specializing in Family and Community Services as well as a minor in English. She has homeschooled her twelve kids and mentored Adults and children for thirty years. She is a naturalist with a big heart for the environment, sustainable living and community building. The result is the Oklahoma Academy of Outdoor Learning- Earthschool, the first in Oklahoma.

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