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A Guest Blog by Karen Barrett

Meet The Adventurous Panda Bear, a lovable, curious, panda bear who enjoys learning.  He loves asking questions, taking risks, finding reason, understanding how things work, and looking at things from a different angle.

He was only 12 months old when this story began in March 2020, but he was already eager to leave his comfort zone at home to begin school life.  However, just days before he was meant to start school, it closed its doors because a virus called NoCuddlitus was spreading rapidly across the continents and a busy school environment was no longer considered safe.  His mother felt terrible for him as she knew how excited he had been.  So, she took Panda Bear and travelled to England with him, found a host family to stay with, and hoped that they would share their home learning experience with them until Lockdown ended.  Panda Bear found himself on a life-changing journey, and when he returned home to China in June, he left feeling excited and inspired.

Seven months later, during which time he had moved into his own home and was now calling himself PB for short, he worked hard to continue learning. But he felt he needed more than books and pictures, he wanted the opportunity to ask questions, challenge himself by being asked questions, and share his opinions and ideas with like-minded others. He felt confused and frustrated sometimes and wondered if this was normal.  He wanted to take his learning to a deeper level and feel comfortable taking more risks but did not know how.  After much deliberation, he decided to return to England on his own, hoping that the same host family would welcome him back to support him on another learning journey.

The day before he travelled to England, he decided to seek advice from the three trusted and respected elders of the forest.  PB did not realise at the time that this in fact was the true beginning of his learning journey.

The first elder he visited lived up the tallest tree on the mountain side and it had a magnificent view.  The elder often sat looking out from his balcony, daydreaming about what exciting voyages he might have if he ever ventured out, but he rarely did.  This elder was the youngest of them all.  The elder took PB’s paw and asked,

“Do you know the answer?”

PB felt confused as he thought he was prepared for this trip, yet he did not know what question he should be answering.  He looked back at the elder blankly.  The elder smiled kindly, wished him good luck and walked with him to the door.

The second elder lived at the bottom of the mountain, just before the valley.  The mud which covered the mountain side slowed PB down but the elder saw him and waited patiently for him.  This elder was known for the beautiful green shoes he wore.  No one knew where he had got them from, and no one had ever dare ask him; asking where his shoes came from seemed such a silly question for an elder.  The elder took PB’s arm and asked softly,

“Do you know everything you need to know?”

PB felt uncomfortably confused again because he did not know what he needed to know, but he felt strangely motivated by the elder’s gentle words as he knew he was trying to guide him somehow.  The elder picked up on this, smiled a knowing smile, wished him good luck, and said,

“It is the clever ones that ask the most questions.  If you do not ask, you will never know.”

The third elder he visited lived in the deepest part of the valley.  His home was very dark and cold because the sun never managed to shine through the fog that hung above.  Not many people visited him, even though he would try and encourage them to, so he welcomed PB with open arms.  The elder knew he was feeling a little anxious and confused so he put an arm around him and asked,

“Is there anything you’re afraid to ask?”

Even though this place looked eerie from the outside, the longer he stayed the more comfortable he felt here.  He was proud of himself for coming, willingly, and after a while it was not unnerving at all.  The elder offered PB some bamboo and listened to him carefully as PB spoke about what the other elders had said (and not said).  PB stayed all afternoon and, after a time, began to connect ideas together, and suddenly it made sense.  The secret to great learning was not to find one answer to the question asked, but to find that answer and then question your own answer over and over.  There was no end to learning; you learn because you want to know things not because you need to.  The elder bowed his head in respect of this realisation, wished him good luck and, as PB went to leave, said tenderly,

“Remember, there are no silly questions.”

As PB prepared himself to return up the same path as he had come, he turned back to the elder and asking tentatively,

“Where does the second elder get his shoes as I would like a pair too.”

The third elder smiled and said,

“That is the right question.  These shoes are only found on a path that requires focus, determination and persistence to ascend.”

For a moment, PB contemplated returning home on the path that he had walked already and that felt familiar, but instead decided to take a risk.  He began to climb this new path, and not too far had he gone when he noticed the most beautiful green glossy leaves.  He did not want to disturb them as they looked like nothing he had ever seen before, but the path was so thick with mud and the leaves looked as though they were growing from a very sturdy branch which stood vertically and reached the entire length of the path, almost like a beanstalk.  He placed his foot very carefully on the nearest leaf and found it was sticky.  He removed his foot, but the leaf was stuck to him and so the leaf tore from its branch.  PB was so upset he had damaged this beautiful mysterious plant; however, before he knew it, the plant had regrown a slightly larger leaf and looked perfectly healthy once again.  It had only taken one step to make a difference: a step in the right direction.  Normally, he would not have had the courage to take it, but it was now or never.  He decided that the only bad step on this journey was the one that did not happen.  PB took one step after another, using his new leafy shoes, until he reached the top.

Standing in front of him, waiting outside an enormous, welcoming home, was a fourth elder, completely unknown to him.  It was a beautiful place, and the elder had obviously put in lots of effort to make it so.  PB was starting to understand that if you really wanted something, you had to work hard for it.  This elder had made connections with many other animals and they had enjoyed working together, improving the home they all lived in, striving for a better lifestyle.  For the first time in his life, PB believed in himself more than ever before.  This time it was PB who took the paw of the elder as they strolled round his large garden.

Once the sun had dropped just above the horizon, the elder pointed back to the valley beneath them and the mountain in the distance and showed him how far he had come already.  Just before PB left, the elder asked,

“Do you need to ask for help?”

PB thought only briefly this time before confidently answering.

“Yes, because asking for help is not a sign of giving up or self-doubt; it is a sign that I have not given up and that I want to be more than I am.”

The elder raised his eyebrows, took out a notebook and started writing.  Once he had finished, he looked up and said, with a hint of surprise, 

“Thank you for teaching me that. I will have to remember that one!  But I meant, did you need help getting back home?”

They both laughed.

PB decided to use the time on the long walk home to reflect upon his day.  He did not want to just sit on the side and daydream about what it might be like to know everything, to watch others walk in the shoes that he wanted to walk in, to feel afraid to ask perfectly sensible questions, and turn back at any sign of a struggle.  Given the option, he would choose to make this whole trip again because that is where he had achieved his best learning.

PB took a detour to his mother’s home to say farewell before his travels, but she was not there.  He left for her a simple poem,

“Packed and ready, Mum”
“I love you but need this now”
“The challenge awaits”