There is a becoming-famous line in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.” “Crozzled” means black or burnt at the edges. McCarthy’s dystopian vision is merciless: all dreams are eternally consigned to burnt hearts which are tombs of darkness, and the last few hearts that carry them are now fast dying. That’s a hard way to live and proceed.
One of the uplifting things about teaching adolescents is that none of them have, yet, crozzled hearts. Their hearts are still alive—tender, anxious, excited, eager, fumbling, full of all kinds of love—for animals, trees, the seasons, games, invention, and each other. They still have many little things which make them glad. If they are lucky, and most of them are, their spirits have not been broken, and their hearts have not been crisped and blackened. And because their hearts are still intact and full of dreams, wonderful kinds of opening can still happen in them and to them. New feelings to be felt, new rooms into which they can walk. We want their ten thousand dreams to be alive in the world, and for them to be alive in those dreams.
Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about what can happen to a heart that is caught “off-guard.” The poem, “Postscript,” describes being caught in the wind between two magnificent, miraculously beautiful sights—the ocean on one side, and a flock of swans on a lake on the other. And the poet wants to stop and capture it, to take a picture, to hold it, keep it, make it his own, and so preserve it. But the poet also knows there is no hope. “Useless to think you can stop and capture it,” he writes. Instead, he says, all we can do is let what we see and feel come into us and and let it blow our hearts wide open.
Yes, I want my students to have their hearts shaken and blown open, to have hearts that are loosened and unmoored, unlocked, unguarded, neither fixed nor finished but exposed to the wind and weather— hearts that can be caught unawares and be worn and made. Not violently, but by degrees. Not in the sense of breaking their hearts to make them feel pain, but to pry them open bit by bit so light pours in. A broken heart, one that is cracked—that’s a heart that can let things in and out. That’s a heart that can be changed. Once, a student told the class that after reading of the death of Coyotito in the The Pearl, he had cried.
“Good,” I said. “You let the book in. Steinbeck wanted you to cry. He wanted you to be so mad that you wanted to smash your hand against a plaster wall. He wanted you to cry about the loss of innocent life. He wanted you to rage at injustice and greed and illusion. He was trying to break your heart and change you so you would feel the majesty of love and the bitterness of despair and the power of courage. He’d be overjoyed to know that you read The Pearl and you cried.”
I hope that their hearts can be blown open, and how we do this at the North Branch School, by degrees and by slow accretion, is by writing about ourselves. First, I have each of them write three or four place descriptions. Our focus is not the place so much as the moments that happened in the place. The brief moment of feeling, insight, epiphany, or revelation, those moments when the heart was blown open, when sense grew, when the horizon of knowledge or feeling expanded, when the heart could feel life coming in.
In their writing they must be clear, specific, rooted to real events. I refuse to let them write fiction, because they don’t even know themselves yet, much less worlds beyond them. Their fiction, from my experience, is boring enough to drive one insane. We eschew generality and abstraction. We clamor after grit, dirt, raw feelings, broken things, the stuff that really happened. Moments of change, turmoil, cracking, and revelation. They learn to describe life accurately, neither with pretense or over-inflation nor with cynicism or glibness. They learn to choose moments of importance, when they saw into their own lived experience or touched knowledge or an understanding beyond themselves. They have to practice. They have to write every week, and they have to write a great deal, and under pressure. They have to hear good writing—poetry, other voices, strange formulations and heightened expression.
Every week I get a pile of their writing. Twenty-six sketches. Most of them 500-700 words. 15,000 or so words to read. I correct them for comma-splices, capitalization, spelling, proper dialogue and quotation form, and awkward constructions. I mark up anything with a scent of cliche. I root out repetitions, informal lingo, lazy description. Clouds do not dance. No one is here for you. You can not say it is beautiful. Describe it in beautiful language, and will feel in our minds that it is beautiful. No smile is plastered on your face. Smells do not envelope anyone. Your eyes did look down at your feet where they were resting on the couch that you could feel holding up your body. Your feet were not running; you were.
I tell them to carve it down to the central feeling in the place. The place is a holder, a vessel into which experience is poured; they construct little momentary worlds where they felt something, saw something real. Where reality gave way to higher truth, as in a morning meeting this past week, when Joe raised his hand.
“I was at baseball practice,” he begins quietly. “And I had just come from the Snow Bowl where Declan’s band was playing, and I had gotten this henna tattoo on my hand. And a kid on my baseball team said, ‘What’s that? Isn’t that like a girl thing?'”
It is impossible to not imagine the clueless derision that must have tainted his teammate’s words. Joe is sitting next to me at the big table and now he his about to cry.
“Is it a girl thing?” I ask.
“No. Well, sometimes, sort of, but not really.”
“It seems like mostly girls get them,” someone says. This may or may not be a fact, but it is immaterial to why Joe has brought up his henna tattoo. He’s talking about a little cut to his soul. His bringing it up comes from his sensing that what his teammate said was wrong; he’s also probably asking the kids at this table what they think, and to stand behind him.
“Are your teammates experts in craft and folk traditions of Hindu culture?” I ask. “Because I know for a fact that at some Hindu festivals, men get henna tattoos on their backs, chests and shoulders.”
“No. These guys are definitely not experts on henna,” Joe says, smiling.
“Then why should they have a clue? Clearly they are morons, or they are stupendously ignorant. Clearly they’re f-ing idiots about that topic. So what could you say?”
“Fuck off?” Joe suggests.
“You could. But only if that is natural to you.You have to say it in a way that feels right to you.”
“I don’t get it,” says Iris. “Those guys sound like they’re kind of dumb. I mean, I think henna is cool.”
There is a rise of assent and cross-talk about how henna is cool. “I got one on my knee once!” someone calls out.
And still, there is a sense in the room that we are facing some kind of subtle, insidious fact about our culture. No matter where we go, no what we do, someone is going to rain down on expressions of self. To stand up to your peers, when you only have the first glimmerings of your deepest truths, is not easy. At their age I was uncomfortable and unsure, and more often than not the courage of my students surpasses my own. I certainly would not have gotten a henna tattoo for the fear that the response from my friends would have been the very one that Joe experienced. Knowing what I have felt, then, makes me feel his fear is real, worthy of exploration and consideration.
“You know what you can say?” I offer. “You can say to the baseball kid, ‘Actually, I don’t know if it’s a girl thing. I did go to a concert at the Snow Bowl. My friend Declan is in a band that played there. That’s where I got the tattoo. And also, the girls in my class think it’s cool.’ Then you say to him, ‘how do you like them apples?'”
The class laughs at that. I’m not sure what I want them to understand most. Maybe it’s that going to hear a concert of your friend at the Snow Bowl is the coolest thing you could ever do, a lot cooler than standing around a baseball field tearing down your teammate. Or that getting a henna tattoo is perfect, and right, if that’s how your spirit moves. Or that we should all get henna tattoos, right now, together. I think, momentarily, of the NFL players who have kneeled, or stayed in the locker room, or locked arms, or raised a fist, or told the president he’s a bum, because they wanted to show solidarity in the face of someone or a system who would name them, confine them, marginalize their voices, call them sons of bitches, or condemn them without hearing their expressions of belief and despair, or tell them that they are traitors, to a gender or a nation.
I do want them to have the courage to say “f- off ” (in language appropriate to them) if someone insults their souls and their tenuous steps toward self-definition. I do want them to do what Walt Whitman counseled, that great Whitmanian “You-can-not-touch-me,-nor-do-I-give-a-damn-if-you-try.”
Re-examine all you have been told
in school or church or in any book,
Dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
And your very flesh shall be a great poem…
Still I am wondering, though, what kind of message has been transmitted by Joe’s story or our talking about it. What has been most clearly impressed in the class? That there are things boys should not do, because they are “girl” things? That there are rules about gender roles we must abide? That we can just say “piss off” if someone tries to tell us what to be or not to be? Or that we must stand up vigorously to violations to our sense of rightness? We are left asking, “How do we navigate the multiplicity of voices telling us that even when we follow our heart’s desire, we may still be breaking the Code. IN fhe face of this how do we make of our flesh a very great poem?
In the beginning of the school year the students are rested and renewed, their tanks filled. Their pencils are sharpened and they are all bold intention to succeed, ready to do it right. Like anything, and especially with anything associated with adolescents, reality gets in the way. The wheels loosen and begin to wobble. The pace speeds up. New demands are made, ones never before imagined. It’s harder than we thought. Things get lost, misplaced, off track. Time is tight. Emotions intensify. And before we know it, we have before us not the cleanly stated goals and dreams of the first days of school as we heard articulated in the speeches, but the messy truths and collisions and conflicts that come with living and growing together in a small space, every day.
What I mean is, now it begins to get complicated. It’s one thing to say, “I want to be kind!” “I want to be free of judgment!” “My holy grail is to go further and not turn back!” These are the hopes and dreams of noble hearts, but they have not yet actually had to become, struggle, break free, or go further. The first five or six weeks have merely been preparation for the harder journey.
At our school we have a collection of old desks from the English department of Middlebury College which we allow the kids to write on. Every few years we sand them down and they start over. There are layers and layers of comical and revealing words—from “I love Justin Bieber” to “I love North Branch” to the “NBS Nineties Rock.” And thereon written name after name after name–the eternal quest of these particular adolescents to inscribe their names into the book of life.
But in the middle of the week we find new words engraved on desk. “Iris is dumb as —-.” These words send a ripple through the school. In meeting it’s brought up. A few of the students tender offerings.
“That’s not okay,” Ethan says.
“Who sits over there at that desk?” another asks. For a moment blame is cast upon the 8th grade. Only their class has the numbers which require someone to sit in that farthest desk in the math room. But questions of “who” do not obliterate the ugly feeling that settles over the school. Something invisible, something more than words themselves, has begun snake into the air.
A classmates turns to Iris. “How do you feel about it?”
She is cautious and unsure, as if to take a stand, to feel it fully, is not safe. “Well, it’s no big deal,” she says. “I mean, I don’t like it, but, I don’t know. It’s not really anything.” Her face is flushed, and she sits stffly and upright at the table. Her words hang in the room.
“If I poked you, would that be a big deal?” I asked.
“If I did it again, would that be a big deal?”
“Not really. Kind of annoying, I guess.”
“What if every time you came in the class I poked you again. Would that be a big deal.”
“What if I did it every day repeatedly and never told you why?”
“Eventually I’d want to leave the school.”
“And if I cut your soul with words like these? It’s not a big deal? Maybe you can walk by it? Yes?
“But two times?
“Then that really doesn’t feel good.”
“What about ten?”
“I would want to leave the school.”
“And that would be a tragedy. And everyone in here would be guilty. Because somehow, we let it happen, over and over. And we’d be wondering, ‘how in the hell could we have let that happen? Why didn’t we say stop?'”
I turn to the class. “You see, the distance between no big deal and tragedy is a very short distance. So when a cut to the soul comes, you have to be ready to speak to it and feel it and address it, because if you don’t it only takes nine more cuts before it’s over. Life, our life together, is that precarious. You guys have to decide if you are will to allow it to be ‘no big deal’ or if it is a big deal. It that’s not a big deal, then you have to tell me what is. You make the world or you let it be unmade. I will tell you what though. If you poked me once, I’ll bite your head off. I’ll make a stand and I draw a line. If someone anonymously writes, “Tal is a shit teacher,” I won’t take one step forward until I address it. And my assumption is that the sayer of those words is hiding a bigger and more important truth behind his anonymous graffiti, and that’s what I’ll go after. It’s a tragedy if you begin to tolerate the thing that you don’t want, if you go silent from the fear of feeling powerless. You all have to take a stand about this, whether it touched you or not, one way or another. If you don’t take a stand, you will be next, and then we’ll have ten cuts to the soul, and then we, and everything that we believe, will die.”
Like, I said, I want their hearts to be shaken. The room is silent. No doubt, I am saying too much. My voice, not theirs, is laying down the moral law. Our school will be working when it is their moral law.
I ask again: “Iris, how do you feel. Whatever it is, let yourself feel it.”
“Iris, you can say it, we’re listening,” Isa says.
“This is the place where you can talk about this stuff,” says Geeta. “At the other school you can’t. Here we can talk and listen and that’s what we should do.”
“She’s right, y’all,” I say. “It’s like Kino in The Pearl. He is suddenly afraid of everyone and it changes him into a scared animal. No school is a good school if the students are scared animals. It’s hard enough to be 12, 13, or 14 years old. It’s ten times harder if you have to worry about someone hating you and speaking ill of you–that means you walk into a place every day where destructive feelings are flowing around you but you don’t know who from. You have to talk about it and not be afraid of talking about it.”
“Well, I guess I don’t know,” Iris says. “I already have enough on my plate. I mean, things are hard enough, just, you know, everyday stuff. I wrote my speech about being free from judgement. This doesn’t help, obviously.” Now she is crying, but there is still something tenuous and reticent in her words.
“Are you holding back because you’re not sure how others feel? Because you haven’t heard much from your classmates?”
“I’m worried that I talk too much. That other people might think it’s not a big deal. I don’t know.”
“It’s a big deal,” says Henry Black, staring directly at her. “You have a right to be mad. It’s not wrong to be mad.”
“No one talks too much,” I say. “If you are talking about serious things, there’s no such thing as too much.”
“It kind of sucks to not know who it is,” she says. “I’d rather just talk to them face to face.”
“It would feel better if we knew who,” Ethan says. “But even if they anonymously apologized, that would be amazing.”
Then from the end of the table comes another voice. I can’t see, as the voice comes from behind the head of Phoebe. I peer around and see Sydney, who has been one of the shyest kids in the history of the school. Until now. Her voice is clear and direct and fills the space above the table.
“It doesn’t matter who,” she says. “That’s the first thing we think of. But what is more important is what’s behind it. The why. It’s obvious that the person who wrote it has some other bad feeling and this is how it came out and that’s what we need to get to.”
“And if we got to that, Iris, how would you feel?”
“I’d feel so much better,” she says.
“The person could write Iris an email. Or talk to her,” says Creed. “They could say ‘I did it.’ Or ‘I’m sorry.’ Or whatever was behind it. That would be progress.”
“And how would that make us feel?” I ask.
“It would be a relief,” the class responds.
But this is as far as we can go. We’ve talked about it over the course of three days. The unsettled feeling remains. We have no closure. Iris has heard that she is free to speak and feel. Her classmates have stood behind her. Whatever happens next will be our final exam.
Wallace Stevens wrote a book, The Necessary Angel, about the nature of reality in the poetic imagination. Poetry speaks of lofty and noble things, but it must start in reality and avoid all abstraction. Reality is closest and must be touched and felt. Not “the night sky,” but the night sky, on this one night, you standing among the other bodies and soft voices, when you watched the stars rise up over the field and you felt that you had a place in the world.” Not “The soul aches,” but “my soul aches on this particular day, because of these particular words.” This is the night sky only you know, this is the soul ache only you know. And so your culmination is really that moment when you make the poem of what you have lived, when you make of your flesh a very great poem.
Wallace Stevens wrote that these poetic acts are “enlargements of life.” This, to me, is the higher purpose for learning to write. Obviously, we want them to learn to write so they can communicate clearly, argue convincingly, convey information, make a coherent case. These are the communal functions of writing, to be turned to good or ill depending on the morality and intention of the writer. But simply learning to communicate without a moral,emotional imperative can quickly become an externally focused and impersonal process which leaves both artist and audience cold.
We are aiming for something greater than mere functionality or coherence. We want something incandescent and transcendent. When Una read the poem on Friday, a short poem by e.e. cummings, the lines said directly the hope I hold for them.
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living…
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
I am interested in the talking and writing these children do because when they get to their clearest fearless seeing, when they find themselves alive in a night sky full of stars and sparks and blackness, the world, my world, becomes enlarged. There is ever more to see, and it is deeper than we ever knew. And I told them this week that every good thing I have ever learned came from sitting in the room for twenty-seven years listening to their words and their experiments with reality and the truth of their lives. They are the little birds who enlarge the world and who carry the secrets of living.
On Friday afternoon I got an email from Iris’ mother. “Iris just received a confession email and a sincere brave apology.”
Suddenly, despite the rising seas and bitterness of our political discourse, despite the fact that our world seems to be teetering on the edge of a McCarthy-esque apocalypse, I feel a glow of golden light pass over. A week’s worth of talking and struggling got us to the place we had to find. The words the students said found a home in another student’s heart. I am in awe of Iris, who has walked out to the difficult edge. I am proud of the student who has let his or her heart be cracked and changed, who could face a friend with honesty. I am grateful for the class full of kids who made a place where such things could happen. This is the begining of them creating their moral law. This is them turning life into poetry. This is them passing the exam with flying colors. And all of it blows my heart wide open.