Good teachers teach their subject as a passion and necessity and they teach it well. Great teachers will further demand that students give their lives, minds and hearts to the process.
Great teachers will also let the thoughts and feelings of their students enter into them. They will pull down the barriers between themselves and their students to be authentic humans, not merely technicians imparting a discipline. Great teachers will not just carry home papers to check at night, but will carry in them their students’ whole lives— their struggles, joys, and the glories of the kids growing up before their eyes.
And so dedicated, it happens that teachers have teaching dreams, because the lives of the students are in them, and do not leave them, even in darkness. I have the recurring dream of trying to get all my students in one room. None of them are listening. All of them are in outright rebellion at the notion of cooperation. My voice, strident and desperate, is lost in a cacophony of laughter and derision and distraction. I leave the room to corral some students who have escaped, and as I drag them in by their shirt collars, others leave out the back door. It is vexing and hellish.
There are days and weeks when teaching can feel like this. No matter how clearly we have set our course, no matter how important the material before us, we seem to drift idly. The wide sea beckons, but we can not undo the bowline from the cleat, nor fit the oar in the oarlock. There are days in which no epiphanies occur. I hear tired phrases repeated again and again. We read a beautiful passage of The Pearl, and no student seems to care. I can not move them. They are each lost in their own worlds. They want to kick a ball in the sun. Take a walk in the woods with their friend. Their minds are preoccupied: Who will I ride with on the class trip? How many more days until my birthday? Will I talk to my father again? Why I am the slowest one in math? They do not care, in these moments, what lurks beneath the surface of the pearl. They doodle inane sketches in their notebooks—a cartoon tank shooting at a cartoon bunny rabbit, a lollipop, which is labeled “a lollipop.” Or they will cut a cast-off orange peel into 100 tiny squares during class, even as we are reading the impassioned writing of one of their peers. They are dissociated, unconnected, merely passing through.
When they finally empty out of the room at the end of the day, there is wreckage and the evidence that they were here, but nothing has been learned. No change effected. I have not reached them, and I see nothing of them but their half-finished assignments, their battered copies of The Pearl left behind on the table, broken pencils, a sweat-shirt crumpled on the dirty floor. I can hear them outside shouting in the afternoon sun but they have already left me, on to the rest of their days.
And I carry all that home with me that night. On these days, in the classroom or at home thinking back over a day of listless classes, I am in darkness. I can not see what I am doing or whether what I am doing is doing anything. I feel like a painter painting on a huge canvas in the dark. I can not see the marks I am making nor the ones others are making. I am not even sure if they are in the room. And none of us can see if we are making something beautiful, coherent, or clear.
“It is all darkness—all darkness and the shape of darkness,” Kino says in The Pearl. In the case of Steinbeck’s fable, the darkness comes from losing sight of what is most essential. Kino’s Song of the Whole becomes infected. One dream replaces another. The deep love of family is replaced by overarching desire, some of it good, some of it poisonous. He dreams of education, equality, justice. But when Kino dreams of a gun and the power a gun represents, he goes a dangerous step from the self that once stared lovingly and knowingly into the light of Juana’s eyes. He goes into the darkness. The most essential vision in the world becomes occluded.
My struggle is to keep all of us focused on what is most essential. To keep our collective vision trained on a valuable quest. And to be aware of what is most essential for each child. To have each child right at the edge of productive and creative tension, neither overwhelmed nor stagnant. My job is to keep them all on that edge where they are seeing and feeling anew, and to make school feel like it’s a new world every day. And then every night thinking about how to do it again the next day, to keep it intense, taut, fresh. This is the daily work..
And then there are the larger motions. We are moving them through time as they move through time. At NBS, where the students are 12, 13, 14 years old, we take them from childhood to the threshold of adulthood. When they arrive at the school in seventh grade they are still losing their baby teeth. When they leave, they have their learner’s permits.
This week I had two dreams in one night. In the first, I am helping a student dig. We are peering down into a large pit, perhaps four by four by four feet. To reach in with a pointed shovel is awkward and ungainly. There is something rich we are seeking, almost like picking through ice cream for the chocolate chunks. The chunks in the pit are black onyx and shining, luminous and damp and alive. But when my student digs she only brings up tiny bits of the dark chunks and mostly dry gravel and other contaminating matter. I show her how to use the point of the spade to move the gravel aside and then dig under the shining chunks to lift them up. Even this proves difficult. So we kneel together at the edge of the pit and I show her how to dig in with her hands. I dig with my hands and we push the gray gravel to side and uncover a vein. We fill our hands with dark living soil and we lift it up. We have in our hands more treasure than we can hold.
When I wake up the next morning the dream is clear. It tells me something I have not articulated but I know to be true. This is the posture and motion of teaching and learning. We show them how to do a thing. We dig, together, with our students. They keep trying, getting closer to the most important matter. Every day we kneel together at the well, altar, mountain side, or pit. Our hands have to be dirty and nimble and in it all the way in order to find the motherlode.
In the second dream I am coming down a river with the all of the students in the school. The river is very broad, alternating between a slow, deep flowing movement and an occasional line of shoals. We gather in a shallow place on one side of the river where the rocks are barely covered over. Our destination is the other side and we have paused here to assess how to get there. The kids come drifting down the river one by one into our shelter, all of us wondering how we will get across. I peer out out across the river and there in the middle of the shoals are many older former students, students from the early years of the school, all full grown, all hale and hearty. They are tall and bright and the sun is on them and their faces glow with pride and confidence. They move about, laughing and joking, and a few of their younger siblings sit on a fence rail, looking out in pride at their older siblings and with anticipation that they will soon be among their brothers and sisters.
I wade across to greet them all, happy to see them so content and strong and grown up. A parent among them calls out to me and tells me they are bringing firewood to the site across the river. They are readying it for us. We only have to get across. Then the older students shout up river. “Bring the boats down now! Send them down!” And the boats come floating down from around a bend, small boats, each one the exact size for each of our kids and their few things. Wading knee-deep, I gather one of the floating boats. “Go in and get your things, Vivian, and I will send you across.”
The work of teaching is not to stand above or beyond the students, but to be in and with them. We wade and dig and swim and search alongside them, and we aim to get them across to the other side. They will go alone, but we give them a destination, and we have helpers and those who went before, and so we send them along. When, in the furious pace of our days, I am unsure of what I am doing in my teaching, I remind myself that my essential work is to get them across with their things, one at a time, so that they can keep on moving into the lands beyond the river.
We had a short week last week, and much of our energy w was spent with everyone tidying up and getting all old work finished and done. By lunch, everyone had completed all their work, a great relief to the them and us. And it was a beautiful fall day, not a day to sit inside for two hours and simply listen to words. So we gathered them up and I read one brief passage from The Dhammapada, the teachings of the Buddha, which I have been reading to them little by little over the course of the fall.
Those who mistake the unessential to be essential and the essential to be unessential, dwelling in wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential. (v. 11)
Just as rain breaks through an ill-thatched house, so passion penetrates an undeveloped mind. (v. 13)
By rousing himself, by earnestness, by restraint and control, the wise man may make for himself an island which no flood can overwhelm. (v. 26)
They listened patiently and then we headed down to the North Branch River. The kids ran out of the building gleefully roused, released, free, into the light, disburdened of responsibility. Some ran through the woods. Others walked more meditatively along the road that winds steeply down to the bridge. Once by the river we gathered on the piled rocks below the bridge. The river ran clear and cold, spilling over quartz and amber boulders into black pools teeming with gold and red leaves tumbling downstream.
“First we’re going to meditate,” I told them. “Stay on this side of the river, from here to that big boulder there in the middle of the river. Stay close to each other. Stay in a sacred silence. We hear each other talking and talking every day. Listen to the sound of the river. It’s more interesting than anything we could ever say.”
The river was pouring and rushing behind us and I had to talk loudly over it.
“Then, when you are ready, go from your meditation to some place close by, here by the river. This bank here is our raft. Stay together on it. Build a sculpture from what you find. As you build see what others are doing around you. Then connect yours to theirs. But no talking. Connect yours to theirs using whatever you find until all 30 sculptures are connected somehow. If it’s an electrical circuit, the charge will go into anybody’s work and eventually make it to all the others. Now go.”
We scattered out along the west bank. No sound but the river, nothing but sand and leaves and damp rocks, trees and the wind and the fallen leaves, and them sitting still and silent by the river, together and apart. Then one by one we began to work, each of us making something as best we could—a cairn of rocks, spirals of ferns and pebbles on a boulder, bridges of sticks reaching across churning falls. And then paths of rocks and gold leaves extending and meandering out among us like little veins.
It wasn’t anything eternal or lasting that we made by the river. The first heavy rains would wash it all away. But on this day it felt essential and earnest. It was the work of minds who do not yet have to cross the river. It was the work of those who are still building for the joy of it.