Building Sanctuaries

NBS Tal’s Weekly Notes #4

On Friday we found out that the Town of Ripton Fire Marshall was forbidding us to burn out Burning School structure. There has been no rain for the last 20 days, and the woods are dry, and a bonfire with a fifteen foot tall wooden structure on it will throw sparks high up into the night breeze. So the kids were a little disappointed. All their work, and hosting a party at their school! It was kind of like finding out you couldn’t eat your birthday cake at your own birthday. But the best thing happened. They did not moan about it. They set to coming up with a solution. They collected the last remnants of wood left-over from the first structure, and they dug other scraps out of the shed. They got out the screw-guns, saws and nails and within one hour had built a miniature “baby” version of the first structure. They were undaunted and resolute. There would be a bon-ire, and we were going to place our sculpture on top of it. In the end, Iris said, she liked the baby one better: it meant that all the words, letters, and quotes each person had put on it were closer together.

She was right. All of the letters and papers were stapled on in a dense mat—old stories and speeches, letters to aunts and uncles, grandparents and class-mates, work from first grade, an essay about Donald Trump, poems by Mary Oliver, the definition of love and of hate, photos of last year’s class, messages to the world. Someone painted, “Forget me not” in purple tempera paint. Phoebe copied down the word “love” in 30 different languages.

Over the years I have watched how the kids respond, once the structure is placed on the fire. They are something quite beyond excited—they are ecstatic, feverish, moved, enthralled. Some of them caper around the fire like wild wood imps; other stare long and hard into the fire and the dark above. Always, every year, there are exclamations: Look! The letter I put on there is burning! There it goes! There is no sadness or regret. There is instead something like pride and wonder. I made this. That’s my work going up into the world. I put something in, and something of me is going out.

Finding this feeling, creating the circumstances in which it may be born— in this must be the very heart of what schools are for. I know we may say, “Schools are for preparing children for the future, to be able to thrive in a globally connected world; schools are for learning discrete sets of skills which will allow them to function in society.” And indeed, schools do this. But there must be something else, something the school makes like wind under wings which allows a body to rise, which makes a body wish to enter the world and give something back to it.

On Wednesday our soccer game was cancelled because the powers that be, no doubt fearing a lawsuit, deemed it too hot to play. Never mind that it was only about 80 degrees, and blessedly plenty of potable water was available, not to mention shade, which can usually be found wherever ballgames are played. Our soccer team practiced nonetheless. With joy, I might add, as early fall shadows stretched across the dry field, and a few crisped leaves spun down from the edge of the woods. We shouted and tried to move the ball as best we could. No one was really minding the score. At the end of practice I gathered the kids together. Their faces were flushed, they were sweating. All of them were smiling.

“Look, you guys, I think all the time about what kind of people you grow up to be. And one of the kinds of people I hope you grow up to be is the kind of person who is strong and willing enough to do things that are physically demanding—like climbing mountains, or carrying heavy loads, or skiing many miles in the deep woods on a frigid day in January, or playing your heart out on a steaming hot day, and to never be a person who complains, but who takes on the challenge willingly and with joy. Have the courage and sturdiness to do the difficult thing.”

But sometimes the kids are fragile. The noise of our days, the speed of them, the density and intensity can be overwhelming. So much so that they will retreat to poems parents read to them when they were little. They will go up into the woods and cry alone. Or lay in the wet grass, angry at the world, clenching their fists until their fingernails make white indentations on their palms. No matter what is going on, feeling is coursing through our days. On Wednesday morning meeting, Henry W. read a short note to Will for his response to Will’s speech. As soon as Henry started to read, he began to tear up, his feeling spilling over into the room. That is commonplace here, and always, when feeling comes out like this, it concentrates the class, as though all at once every sound was shut out and we only heard the single crystal voice. In this case, it was love, affection, and thankfulness for friendship. Henry simply said: Thank you for being my friend. His face turned red and tears dripped off his cheeks, and he his leg vibrated wildly as he tapped his foot as he read the note. He was showing us a room inside of him, his own sacred sanctuary. He’d made a place inside for his friend and he let us see it. To tell it was to show us his inner work and workings, fragile and powerful at once. The courage to put his words into the room—it’s what Wallace Stevens called “a bravura of the mind, a courage of the eye.”

When feelings overflow into the room, it calls us to the deeper places in us, in the way a meditation bell or the singing bowl can make us stop and listen to emptiness or to All. We will feel for the person before us, and we will feel our own needs and wants and emptiness. If we are really listening, we hear the tone of our friend—that’s the fundamental frequency. If we concentrate, we will hear two audible harmonic overtones. We can call these secondary overtones the frequencies we hear inside ourselves, and, perhaps by extension, a faint but perceptible awareness of another tone sounding in other bodies in the room or beyond. When we hear like this, our sense of perception is made more muscular and fine-tuned. This is what we are working on each day.

Teachers live their days with their minds drenched with wishes for their students. We wish for them to see clearly.  Be willing to try a new thing. To not be sheepish. To be full-voiced. To help others who are struggling. To hear or see the most important thing. To remember the lines from the poem. To shout out the words, “I did it.” When we went to the woods on Wednesday for lit class, I wanted them under the trees so they could feel the line in the “Directive” that says, “As for the woods’ excitement over you/ That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves/ Charge that to upstart inexperience.”” When they look up, the still-green maple leaves are lightly whispering and fluttering. I wanted them to see the pecker-fretted apple trees, and the monolithic knees of gray granite stones that the earth continually pushes up, as if to remind us that there is life under and behind us always. When we went to the Frost cabin on Friday, Paul found a pile of wood in the a copse of trees. It was sinking into the earth, blackened and rotted, covered over in lichen and mats of moss. The poem we’d read at school was there in the woods before us, as we sat in the sun and looked down over the unmown field. So we wish for them to find out that the world still contains the things poets place in poems. We wish for them to want to go to the edge of a clearing and find what no one else has ever seen.

In the first weeks of the school year Ben and Oscar and Will found a dead deer in the woods behind the Doug Walker field. Ben ascertained that it had been hit by a car quite recently. The presence of the deer has marked our first few weeks of school, from the excitement of the kids over finding it, and ensuing discussions about what to do with it. Eat it? Call the Game Warden? Some days the first thing arriving students have done is sprint to the woods to look at the deer, to see the process of decay. Last week during Wiffleball, the stench of the deer carried across the field. Lately it seems the eye sockets and have been cleaned out. On Friday afternoon, while we played soccer, vultures circled over the edge of the woods, their wing-tips seeming to touch the tops of the big fir trees.

We are seeing time passing. Nineteen days have gone by, a little more than an eighth of the year. How do we quantify and record what has happened? There are shouts in the back of the fields where several kids are collecting firewood for our bonfire. Other kids are banging away in the basement, manufacturing a church pew out of the remnants of an old organ. Others are building a four-foot by four-foot replica of the “sacred sanctuary” so we will have something to burn to carry our hopes and dreams into the sky. Others are planning a party in the basement, welcoming a new friend and celebrating her birthday. Sasha is sitting with Pam at lunch, working on his algebra. In science they are understanding the word “albedo,” the fraction of light that is reflected back from planet’s surface. A wobbly fan is moving air from outside across the table and papers lift and flutter. In the woods, on a flat carpet of dry pine needles we sit to read a poem. I ask them to close their eyes while they listen. Then they look up, eyes open. The mid-morning sun arrows into our clearing. In the middle of our little circle is an empty space. I could have placed the Holy Grail there for them, but I didn’t. Our time is spent looking into the empty space and trying to fill it up, trying to find the right things to pour in.

They are finding woodpiles, rocks rising up from the earth, the shadow of a vulture, a path that splits into two directions. They are finding that they can toss tea-leaves to the wind and read poems around a boulder; that having flowers on the big room table is good. They are seeing that they can build sanctuaries–big ones and little ones–around a table, in a pasture, on the forest floor, and inside themselves.


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