When a student signs up to read the daily poem, they are then faced with the prospect of hunting for one. Most of them do not yet have a favorite poet. So they ask their parents, as Vivian did last week. Her mom directed her to Pablo Neruda. If Vivian pays much attention in the coming years to the poetry of Pablo Neruda, she will have a favorite poet and a companion for life.
On Wednesday Will, at the suggestion of his father, read Robert Herrick’s, “To the Virgins, Make Much of Time,”
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
It occurred to me that it was fairly unlikely many middle schoolers, if any at all, were reading this particular poem on this particular morning. It was 8:47 AM and most kids in America were most likely in an Advisory, or an assembly, or maybe they were headed down the halls to their first classes of the day. I suppose we were in an “assembly” as well, since we were all gathered around the big table. But there is something distinctively cozy and a little strange about our poem ritual—we do it every morning, even if the kids usually have very little idea whose poem it is they are reading, or any formal knowledge of the particular school of poetry, prosody, meter, or cultural context from which the poem arises. And if any school really were getting into the subtext of Herrick’s poem and the Elizabethan dual meaning of “dying,” it’s likely also that some school official would become highly discomfited and banish Herrick altogether. But here, whatever it is does not matter. It is the sound and feeling we are after.
More often than not, the poem speaks to us the way that provides an analogue to our collective feeling and thought. As one takes a walk and sees in nature a reflection of one’s inner thoughts, when the trees or sky seem to have written themselves into a commentary aimed at one’s heart. As though the world were listening to our troubles and answering back from another time and dimension. This is how the poem sounds sometimes when it is read to the class.
There could not have been a poem more perfectly directed at a group of students assembled in a room. All week we have been talking about how we take care of our lives here in the school. How we should take care of the blessing we have to go to a school which is warm and full of love, which is filled with children who want to learn and are active about doing it. About how we should take care of the time we have here, because it is fleeting, and it only lasts a short while, and soon these kids will be gone, and handing the school off to other children.
The graduates of the North Branch School often write back with this kind of advice: take advantage of it while you have it. It’s not always like NBS out there in the world. It’s your school, take care of it. They have walked a little further down the road and they have seen a little more, and so can look back and assess what it was they lived through and in for three years.
When the woods are filled with dying ostrich ferns and the beech leaves are burning amber orange gold, we do feel time moving. When the afternoon breeze sifts through the bare limbs on the hill above the school and leaves scatter over the soccer field, it’s easy to feel time slipping by. The students feel time moving when they read something they wrote two years before and wonder, what was I thinking? They feel it when they observe their younger siblings, who still need help getting dressed or making a bowl of cereal. They know when they think back to the first days of the school year, when doors to the class room were open and we could hear the neighbor’s rooster crowing through the woods. Our time here is fleeting, as Dylan Thomas’ voice calls across the years to remind us that the sun that is young once only.
In the beginning all the students stand together at the starting line, and much of the early year excitement revolves around their feeling of togetherness, a sense of collective adventure. No one is ahead, no one is behind. We conjure a feeling of possibility and hope and potential. The world awaits. Your mind is infinite. This year will be like no other. You can do anything you want. They hunger to feel and believe this and they urge each other on, particularly when they write and read their speeches, which are essentially manifestos of their goals and intentions, to which they respond with wild acclaim and praise.
But then life happens. They begin to run and move forward. Some surge ahead with astoundingly beautiful writing, or an exquisitely executed drawings, or facile and wise-sounding comments in class. And some students begin to question their powers. Is my mind capable of that? How can I make that shape, or put those words together? I’ll never do it. Some are relentlessly organized; others leave a trail of crumpled, unfinished assignments, broken pencils, dirty socks, and lunch bags behind them, only marginally aware of what is due when. They lose track of their intentions and plans. Their procedures are inconsistent or incomplete. Some fall behind, or procrastinate, or are too ambitious, spending multiple hours on one project at the expense of all else. One student will be unable to peck out a couple of paragraphs about The Pearl but is plowing through Stephen Ambrose’s History of World War II. One child forgets to bring her math homework to class for three days straight but stares fixedly at her ornate, Celtic designs she’s copied into her notebook, the vines wrapping around her name on the page, an adolescent’s 21st century illuminated manuscript.
Correspondingly some students surge ahead making friends. From the outside it appears that they are the glamorous ones, the life of the party, immersed in untold numbers of meaningful, soulful friendships. Others are slower, their social abilities take more time, they are shy, or reserved, or unsure. These others look upon the plethora of burgeoning friendships and they become scared. Will I be left behind? Is everyone else having fun, always knowing what to do? Am I not worthy? valued, loved, or seen.
As the school year proceeds, the gaps between kids become more apparent. They see their distance from each other or their goals. Their aching, torturous self-consciousness arises from seeing themselves as they imagine others must see them. And that projection of how other must see them comes directly out of their own sense of their shortcomings and failures. They find themselves feeling like they don’t measure up, that they are no good, not special. Whatever cloaks they draped over their shortcomings or the difficult aspects of their lives —their survival camouflage— this begins to fray and blow off. The truths of their lives become more exposed.
This is when friction begins, when time seems to slow down, becomes a murky, obscure slog through fogged and tangled undergrowth. This is, ultimately, when “drama” ensues. “Drama” used in a derisive sense diminishes the importance of what is happening. What some call drama I say is the field on which the compulsions, desires, dreams, and ambitions of growing souls collide. Drama is what must happen. It’s part of how the kids make themselves. It is the drama of the self becoming the self.
They are loud. They interrupt. They blame each other for who ruined a class. They feel left out or left behind. One boy worries that his two best friends no longer need him. Another feels his friends only see one dimension of him and he doesn’t know how to express anything else. One girl doesn’t know how to start conversations and to even try is painfully difficult. Another is caught between the girls, who have banded together, and his friends, who are acting younger than their ages. He’s lost between the two worlds, and all he wants is for the two worlds to merge so he can feel himself folded into both. One boy stares out the window in class, wondering why it is so difficult to write down words when his head is full of so many of them.
We try to work with it. We let it come out. We talk about it. We ask them to address it. Sometimes we let them fail miserably so that they will see the consequences of their actions or inactions. We watch them stumble and collide. Two girls are mad that their class has been loud and disrespectful to a classmate while he presented his project. They are concerned and want to discuss it. While they appear altruistic, it is also true that they both have lately failed to do their school work. Both issues are discussed in class by the class. What kinds of disrespect are we talking about? Not listening, talking over others, showing off with knowledge, being dismissive. Or are we talking about being disrespectful to the process, the opportunity, the thing happening. Coming to class unprepared is as disrespectful as interrupting. One boy confesses that he’s been rude to everyone, and that his mother is correct, he needs to use tact and, he agrees, tact is important. Another is asked: why aren’t you doing your work? The answer is authentic and true: I don’t know. Another girl wonders aloud if her classmate is mad at her.
She’s never said hi to me.
But have you said hi to her? I ask.
No, not really. And then a fleeting, rueful smile plays across her lips. ‘
Are you feeling connected to your peers, I ask one boy.
Sure, he says.
Do you feel close to everyone yet?
No, he says.
Are you close to Ethan? I ask.
Well, we’ve been talking this year, so it’ s better.
What do you mean, better? Didn’t you ever talk last year?
No, we never talked to each other. At all, Ethan admits. He is smiling also.
What—You’re in the same class, for a whole year, every day together, doing a hundred projects and assignments, and you never talked?
A year of avoidance leads to a year of silence between two boys who sit across the table from each other every day.
Now we are to the heart of it. Kids this age feel alone all the time. They feel separate from their peers, different and surely unique, and at the same time they are separating from parents. Because they are in the midst of taking their first practice flights away from their families. Because they are anticipating their first migrations. In some deep down, sub-conscious evolutionary level they are worrying that they will be left behind to be eaten by wolves while the rest of their peers go on to make happy families and great civilizations.
There begins a feeling and hunger for solitude, but sometimes it’s more than they bargained for. They hide in their rooms on the quest for independence. They will determinedly marinate in their private solitude, but they can only stay there for mere moments. Social media beckons. Headphones on, Google Chat up, homework out, cellphones, Instagram. The need for connection beckons, and these connections can be ungainly, inept, even erode the sense of self. They may find themselves adrift, severed from thoughts and people and interactions that once sustained them. They change their hair, their clothes, their music. A rackety noise of elemental, existential fear sets in— fear of judgment, fear of being alone, fear of not being worthy, fear of a lack of direction or purpose. Robert Frost writes: I have it in me so much nearer home/ To scare myself with my own desert places.
I see it as part of my work, the teacher’s essential work, to have them confront these fears, to bring them into full and honest visions of themselves. We do this by talking, writing and reading about ourselves. And we do it by learning to listen. Usually they are responding to what they hear in their heads. Mostly, in the case of young adolescents, they are hearing the echoes of those manifold fears—the hissing voices that tell them they are not good, worthy, beautiful, strong, liked, or desirable.
I want them to begin to hear other sounds. The sound, for instance, of wind, or the rain on the roof of the school. Or the sound of the classroom when they are all meditating in the early morning. Or the sound of a poem, of strange words giving voice to what lives inside. I send them out to sit in the field on sunny days. We “listen” to John Cage’s 4’33” to hear what happens when we stop shouting into the void with inane cries for attention. If we practice this long enough, they begin to hear the faint voice that is their own calling out inside of them.
On Friday morning it was cold and clear. In morning meeting we talked about the week. Isa raised her hand.
I was just thinking about how I finally feel I am in the right place. I was doing my science cards last night and I just felt that I am doing what I was meant to be doing.
Here at the school, you mean?
What makes you feel that?
I don’t know. I’m safe here, I guess. It feels warm and loving.
She’d somehow navigated herself to clarity, at least in the moment. Knowing that, I told the class, meant that she would take care of her time in the school, She’d take care to make it count and give all that she had to it.
Then I told them we were going to take a walking meditation up into the woods. I gave them each a plastic trash bag to sit on once we stopped.
I’m not a Buddhist monk, I told them. But once a Buddhist monk lead our school on a silent walking meditation in sub-zero temperatures. He was wearing his brown robe and a North Face jacket. He walked slowly and we could hear every sound on the mountain. So that’s what we’re gonna do. I’ll walk, you follow.
I didn’t know exactly where I was going. I never looked back. I assumed they were behind me, but maybe they weren’t. Maybe they just watched me walk off by myself. After all, what actually compelled them? All it was was me saying, Let’s walk in silence. I didn’t know if this was making the most of time or making nothing.
We went up an old logging trail that was layered with wet, fallen beech leaves. The sun-light filtered in in spots. Lichen-spotted boulders like the ones in Frost’s poem rose up among the leaves and the woods dripped with the previous night’s rain. I could faintly hear steps behind me. A cough far down the trail. A car in the distance. A rush of breeze. A few birds chittering and cawing. Snapping of twigs and footsteps on the earth.
I looked up hill for a path of sunlight for us to gather in. The path ended in a small grassy clearing, shrunken over time, lined with clusters of birch trees and gnarled maples. Sun warmed the place and crystalline drops of dew were clinging to the stems of grass. One by one the students emerged from the woods. Not one of them spoke. The dome of heaven was open and nothing but the morning was in it. I thought of Creed’s project on the Norse religion, and of the god Bifrost, who could hear grass growing. It was so quiet that it seemed we might be the gods who could hear these smallest of sounds.
After a long while, in which I feared breaking the silence, I asked them:
Did anyone hear anything or have any cool thoughts?
They spoke across the circle in steady succession. No one was afraid, no one fearing anything. The sound of the morning was in them.
I think of the grass and the trees, said Una, And I think how they are not pretending to be anything, or trying to look like they are special, they are just existing, And that’s all they have to do. And they are so strong, just being themselves. I want to be like that.
She finished talking. And then she raised her hand again.
I am thinking about how you could look at life and think of it as just one day. The sun rises and we have just one day. Yesterday doesn’t exist and neither does tomorrow. Even the next moment doesn’t exist. You only have this one.
I suppose this was one of those rare morning songs. We took our chance while the sun was rising. Old time is a-flying. We have to take our walk in the woods while we have it, while we have the woods and while we have time. We have to take care and listen, while youth and blood are warm.