A student is writing her name over and over in her notebook this morning in meeting and all through literature class. Repetitive block letters, her whole name, middle name too. Today, perhaps, The Pearl is not foremost in her mind. In her preoccupation she is being, after all, what she is, an adolescent. In writing her name again and again, she is, consciously or not, inserting herself into the world. Seeing what it is to have her name written into the book of life, or asking herself with each iteration, “Who am I?”
As I try to draw them into Steinbeck’s retelling of an ancient tale, I am simultaneously asking myself what this signifies. I am thinking about how all kids, in one way or another, repetitively announce their presence or arrival on the scene and then ask again and again, Who am I, and am I seen?
All spring last year Will drew four-leafed flowers again and again in his class notebook. Each flower was a kind of carefully drawn mandala, which became his tag, his signifier, his mark that he was here, a new, “flowering” conception of himself. Today Jack draws a series of blooming clouds in green and purple marker, which expand down his page like a slightly off-kilter fractal.
“Check out what I drew in my notebook,” he says to his classmate. Henry evinces no interest, but says coolly, “It looks like something Rosemary would draw.” Is this a compliment, or is it dismissive?
“No, no, this not the same,” says Jack, a little quieter, defensive, and hopeful still. “This is different because see how I made this?”
“No, sorry, it looks like Rosemary’s.” Jack’s classmate is matter-of-fact, unmovable, unimpressed, and not able to see what Jack has sought. Jack’s classmate walks away to carry on with his business, and Jack stands there at the end of the table, closing his notebook before heading off to class, trailing off, “But it’s not exactly like Rosemary’s…”
The moment when Jack showed a sliver of himself, a moment when his classmate could have opened his eyes, has been cauterised. The golden opportunity to make a connection, to make his friend feel seen—to extend himself across the great divide that seems to eternally exist between all of us—has been missed.
I submit that this tiny incident is an example of how we break each other, or diminish each other, or remain invisible, or feel invisible every day, or always have work to do “see better,” as Kent counsels King Lear. The kids try to make a significant peep. Who is listening? Who is seeing?
I think of the way a child will swimming or splashing or jumping off the diving board and will again and again say, “Look! Mom! Dad! Grandma! Look, I at what I can do!” In middle school, in adolescence, it is not so much that they are asking their parents directly to see them creating their soul identity, but more so that they are looking for their peers to see them. To congratulate them. To notice them. They are most often themselves alone, or in private. In adolescence they want to be themselves in the world.
What does this moment do to Jack? What does this do to any of us, if the world transmits to us that we do not matter, that our little peeps are nothing but peeps and of no true significance, that so many of our greatest efforts go unrecognized?
Later I sit with Jack’s friend.
“I notice that your mind works in a wildly fascinating way,” I say. “I want to tell you what I see.”
He is listening.
“Okay,” he says. As is most often the case, he is curious and wants to learn. “I’m not sitting you down here to criticize or jump your ass–I just want to play back what I observed.”
I describe the incident, asking him to clarify anything I have gotten wrong.
“What I see is that you connected his drawing, the object, to another object. In a split second you saw his work and knew, exactly accurately, what other world it seemed similar to.”
“That’s a thing about my family. It’s a thing where my mind just makes connections and just goes and connects really fast and I end up about like a million miles over here.”
“That’s so interesting and you see it clearly. You think about object relating to object. But in that split second sequence of seeing and connecting, what about the emotion, the other human?”
“Oh, you mean Jack’s feelings?”
“Yeah, exactly. What was he probably wanting you to see? What was he asking for? Was he asking for you to connect it to some other kid, and to say it was just like hers? Did he want you to say he was just like Rosemary?”
He smiles. “No, not at all. Of course not.”
“He’s a human. Maybe he is just saying, ‘check out my drawing. If you think it’s cool, I will feel so good. Like I matter.'”
“Oh, I see. I probably didn’t make him feel like he mattered.”
“Logic is good. Pair it with love. Hold them both in balance. See what happens. You saw it is similar to another kid’s drawing, but that fact could remain unstated. You can go straight to the feeling, his feeling, if you are listening.”
I have tried to put this in his mind, a seed, a thing to be incubated. I will do this a hundred times with him and all of them. Will it open them up? Will they see more, or better? Will they, with open hands, be able to hold love and logic together in balance?
In her speech Una wrote, “Every silence was an invitation to say something.” On the literal level she was talking about how meetings and classes at school are sometimes filled with silence. In a larger sense, she was speaking of how existential silence is a kind of immense possibility, a yawning chasm at the edge of which each of us stands continually, anxiously considering the leap, fearing or anticipating the sound of our own voices echoing down and down.
She was speaking of how many opportunities she had and how important it was to take those chances. Similarly, every interaction is an invitation to make something. How many chances come in a day to make or create love and understanding? Incredibly, we are actually given hundreds of chances every day to make or destroy the world. Every day our words or actions can be turned towards love, acceptance, or understanding. Or they can be used for division, separation, argument, and distrust. My students may be only 12, 13, or, 14, but they possess the powers of gods. They make or break the world.
On Tuesday I showed them a picture of Shiva in the Nataraja pose–the Cosmic Dance. I simplified it somewhat (not being a Hindu scholar, I had to) and showed them some of the principle iconographical symbolism. The four arms: one hold the drum which calls creation into being; in the second hand fire, which contains the balancing force of destruction; the third hand, opened in a gesture of open fearlessness and acceptance; the fourth hand which gestures to the raised leg, which is in itself opened as a gate, inviting us in, a signifier our liberation to move inside of cosmic existence; the other foot, which dances on the Dwarf of Ignorance, and the vertical third eye, from which shines the light of the world. Circled around this figure are the flames of the cosmos, and there is Shiva, dynamically balance at the center of it. Open, powerful, creator and destroyer at once, inviting us into the dance as well.
“Why does he have four arms?” Nate asked.
“Because Gods have more powers. The arms symbolize their supernatural qualities.”
They nodded and listened.
“You clowns possess all of these powers,” I said. “You make the world around you come alive, you struggle and falter and sometimes destroy. You are right now in the middle of the process of dying out of your child self, seeing it, living it, and leaving it at once, and you are remaking yourself into a current and future self, in every moment. You make love and affection between you, or you destroy it, by every action or inaction. When you see, you bring light to the world. You are open or you are closed. You are fearless, or you are fearful. You are moving and dancing, or you are still and stagnant. You hand is a fist or it is open, showing the strength that is open to what life brings. And at your best you are dancing on the dwarf of ignorance. That’s what we are trying to do every day. So, I see you all as Shivas. You all possess these powers too.”
Later we read a place description that had been written by Sydney. In it she’d drew the moment when she had to decide—stay at camp and have fun, or leave camp and see her dying uncle. To her it was a choice between two kinds of betrayal. To chose one was to destroy something else.
The emotional core of her sketch was what was born from having to make a momentous decision. In hindsight, she regretted her choice—to stay at camp. In her mind she had closed her heart and hand, and missed the opportunity to give thanks and gratitude, to see her uncle—who’d just lately sent her a birthday card—one last time. To Sydney, her choice was a destruction. Paradoxically, in writing about it, it became an act of creation, a new consciousness of the sacred and necessary. She was holding in balance two dynamic forces–and so created a new knowledge of reality. In “Esthetique du Mal” Wallace Stevens writes
One might have thought of sight, but who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound.
And out of what sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.
Speech found Sydney’s ear. She let the moment teach her. Her power lies in knowing or trying to take all that she has seen and felt and then locate the many selves she possesses, to see life not as a narrowing, or herself as small, but to feel the truth that she exists in manifold forms in sensuous worlds. No longer a tiny thing sitting alone on a bench at camp, marinating in self-reproach, but part of an infinite cosmic swarm, a self being born into a new self.
Their place descriptions are attempts to bring moments of heightened feeling alive in a very short space. No more than 500 words, a compressed moment of poetic seeing. The assignment is to make a concise and clear “stage set” where we can see them alive in their unique forms of thought and feeling and action, a flash of epiphany, a thunderbolt of new consciousness, and shining sense of the depths which flow around and in therm. They write about going into the woods to cry. About sitting on a dock in Ontario, waiting for a loved one to return. The describe floating over the surface of a still lake, thinking about the future, and all the possibilities of tomorrow, and the depths down below. Or remember being curled up in a ball at night, hating themselves and the bodies they live in. Or when an older student let his seventh grade classmate teach him how to narrow the angle while defending the goal, and saw the patience his younger classmate possessed. Or making brownies at dusk, each proper step in the process a “signifier of progress.” Or about a toy tiger given to them by his Papa, and a boy’s memory of Papa’s hand touching the top his head one Christmas eve. Or under the hot sheets in summer, late at night, listening to dad’s car’s slowly roll out of the driveway for a work trip, and wondering where he is the next morning.
Wallace Stevens said that a poet is “the angel of reality,/ Seen for a moment standing in the door.” When the doors are open, we can see them all standing there in most exquisite and beautiful forms. When they approach these doors, and truly see the figure standing there, they see themselves as well. When they let us into their private and immense dramas and show them to us honestly, we begin to see them. Over time, we all begin to see each other. Each sketch, each moment, each glimpse in is a little step, a signifier of progress. Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, “In Praise of Dreams,” which Sasha read in class today, says: “I am gifted,/and write many epics./I hear voices/ as clear as any venerable saint.” The words went straight to my previous thoughts. The kids here are gifted, and they can hear voices, especially those of their peers, whom they are coming to love, who might also be, incidentally, saints, gods, and angels.