We have been reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. The story does not have much conventional drama—no cliff-hangers, violence, vampires, or orcs. However it does contain the drama of how human beings evolve from one state to the next.
It is this drama that we teachers live for, those moments where a child grows before our eyes. I am not talking about the proverbial “a-ha moment,” though that happens and it is good. I don’t simply mean those moments when, as exciting as they are, when suddenly students understand that breakfast means “to break the fast,” or see the symbolism behind the snake in “Don’t Tread on Me,” or comprehend why water expands, or are able finally, mercifully, to balance an equation.
We are talking about something much deeper, more far-reaching. We are talking about the moments when the vision of reality changes. When a student conceives of and asks a question and new vistas open up. We are talking about moments when a twelve-to-fourteen year-olds find transcendence, or are disabused of their illusions, or find a way to direct their lives in accordance with their ideals, or have their hearts broken and then mended.
Siddhartha stands for all of us who must shed our skins and become new again. He is all of us who go deeply into a new path or identity or relationship, only to find limits or stagnation. He is all of us who, having found that ostensible wall, seek further and believe there is another beyond, an ultimate reality still to be discovered. He stands for the part of us that lives beyond all “laws and preaching,” as Whitman writes, where the greater something awaits.
And as we see old orders of decorum and unity disintegrate around us, we may discover that we need to create our own structures, our own sacred realms, independent of what common culture offers. Rumi has some well-known verses (translated by Coleman Barks), about the human need to find such sacred realms.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense
I find that most of what I read about beyond the woods of the North Branch School lately does not make any sense. When I look off the mountain I see currents of anger, division, and rage. I hear strident voices shouting about wrongdoing and rightdoing. So much of what passes for government, leadership, cultural norms, or policy seems to be tainted by money, self-interest, and corruption. So I turn to the sense that my students make. If I can bend my ear just right, I hear them speaking words that the world should hear. They can be a river that offers secrets. I hear them talking about purity, selflessness, and love. I see them becoming forms worthy of being memorialized in stone or bronze.
When we were in Boston, we walked past Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ relief sculpture of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment to see action for the Union in the Civil War. Originally, though, Shaw had been unsure about leading such a regiment, dubious about their fighting capability. Over time, however, he came to love his men. When his men boycotted their pay, which was less than white soldiers, he boycotted with them and refused his own pay. In battle would not allow his soldiers to violate the rules of war, even when ordered to do so by higher-ranking officers. He treated his men with dignity, though they were considered an “unlawful” unit by the enemy, and sometimes as such even by fellow soldiers. He insisted on decorum, high standards, even treatment. He lead them fearlessly. He learned to see his men as men. After Shaw was killed with his unit in a failed assault on Fort Wagner, the Confederate army refused to turn over his body and ordered it stripped, robbed, and dumped into an unmarked trench with the regulars as a show of contempt for his having lead black soldiers. In a letter to the regimental surgeon, Lincoln Stone, his father, Frank Shaw, wrote:
We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his
brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in
which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better
company – what a body-guard he has!
Shaw was a man worthy of being memorialized in bronze. His heart, his actions, his willingness to find a cause and sacrifice for it made it so. He lived on that high plane of the gods, where he gave himself over to something quite larger than himself—in this case a belief in the equality of all human beings. To get to that high plane he had to reflect, think, suffer, change course, and make decisions about how to conduct his life. He lived through his own reincarnations—from birth, to child of privilege, to student, to dutiful soldier, to leader, to martyr.
In this sense he lived as Siddhartha did, steadily evolving from the relatively contained generic place of high-born advantage to the timeless, boundless realm of the noble and heroic. And so while reading Siddhartha, I have thought of my students in such a light, relishing the moments when they have seemed to be moving from one incarnation to another, when they break from limits to limitlessness, from tentative stoicism to impassioned speech, from cold, stone-heartedness to empathic lovers of the world and each other.
In order to understand Siddhartha, we tried to live like him. We spent a week purposely living in a state of self-denial and deprivation. Each student elected to eschew some comfort or luxury. At home they slept on their floors, took cold showers, ate cold food, slept with no pillow. They wore the same set of clothes all week; chose to forgo washing hair, using make-up, or ornamenting themselves; wore logo-less clothes, or taped over clothing brand-names which, they discovered, labeled them from head to toe. They made their families turn off the lights and use candles. They tried going meatless or vegan. They used only pencils, scrawled their school work on birch bark, left their computers at home, skipped all forms of social media. At school we unplugged the printer, microwave, and the lights. In the morning and afternoon we held mediation walks in the labyrinth, and several of the students walked barefoot on the cold, wet ground; one of them wore her “Samana sandals” she’d fashioned out of cardboard. We meditated in a dark room with a single candle until, by staring, the room went black and the only radiance emanated from that tiny, flickering flame.
By these means over five days we tried to coerce inner evolution. By choosing to endure these self-imposed rules, some of them uncomfortable, and by altering ingrained habits, we tried to change our consciousness. It wasn’t heroic by any means, and certainly we did not ascend to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “high plane of dignity and discipline,” or “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” But we did, however, move ourselves together to a new understanding of what we are, and what our minds and bodies are capable of, not just in the internal, mental landscape, but in physical, three-dimensional being. Our learning, for those few days, dwelled at the point where physical bodies and senses intersected with the the potential forms of growing souls.
Robert Hayden’s great sonnet “Frederick Douglass” speaks about the need for idea to become action, the way the virtues memorialized in stone can be given flesh and life by the way we conduct our lives.
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
Yes, we are striving to be sculpturally and three-dimensionally significant. And I devoutly hope that that my students learn how to live lives that one day will be remembered. But first they must learn to see, and see each other, and then, at last, see themselves. To that end the kids write about their lives and each other constantly. They bring each other to life and into the room by means of character sketches, the primary aim of which is to penetrate to the invisible place beneath the physical surface. What lives under the face, the hair, the clothes, the easy smile, the annoying behavior. What powers are expressed in a single gesture, in the casual comment, in the way one leans over one’s drawing? What great truths emerge from a close consideration of a person’s small actions over time? How is this friend, mother, sibling, or teacher a beautiful, needful, breathing figure of value? With all their expanding powers of observation and expression, their goal is simple: to the show cosmically significant truth of one another. To do it they must use the two great tools of the artist: logic, in order to show concrete reality; and love, to make it come alive.
Isa was writing her sketch on Henry Swan, a boy she has only known for three months. When she sent him what she had written, he was launched into a state of ecstatic, electrified awareness. He wrote me one night, clearly shaken. “It’s so good it’s not even funny. it made me laugh and cry and laugh again. this is some seriously holy business.”
By her artistic hand Isa had opened him up so he could see himself. She made a word picture of him that put him into the world in a way he’d never felt. Holy business! I wonder how many school principals or superintendents have ever called what happens in school a “holy business.”
So often the business of the world seems unholy. We exist mostly in the mundane, and often in the profane–obsessed as we are with menial or meaningless tasks and desires, piddling around with unworthy interests, selling little bits of our souls to the first bidder, investing in empty gestures and unneeded objects. But then there are those times when we do ascend, little moments that add up. Like when Maddy writes about Lena, because she wants Lena to be seen, and wants to know what is behind Lena’s tears and her laughter. When Lena volunteers to sing, a capella and in front of all her peers, “The Tree of Life” for Sydney’s project, even though she is not fully confident in how the melody should sound. Or when Ben tells the class that he doesn’t like people making fun of him when allows a goal at lunch on the field, because, dammit, he volunteered to be our goalkeeper, and he may not be the best, but he’s trying. Or when Isa notices that Una’s lips look like an almost W. Or when Geeta says she will bring in a menorah to join our meditation bowl and Tree of Life, giving balance to the universe. Or when a group of boys dash into the woods at lunch to cut down a small conifer to erect in the big-room to be our non-denominational tree of life, in honor of pagan practice and Syd’s project. Or when Henry Swan realizes that empathy is more powerful than winning. Or when Henry Black writes of himself that inside his silences and his loudness is a small boy who misses his parents and just wants to be at home, in the embrace of his mother, with touch of his father’s flannel, and the musty smell of his barn.
Or maybe it happens when Joe speaks in meeting, about his old friend told who him his haircut looked “gay,” and then told Joe to “go fuck himself” after Joe told him that saying “gay” is not cool.
In a state of disbelief, I ask the class, “What do you say to that?” Celeste answers in less than a second and with absolute conviction: “You say that that person is not a very good friend.” Such moments propel all of them into an understanding of what being human is, and how life calls upon them to respond, together, with each other, and for each other.
This is how they move toward making of their lives something usable and good. They strive to see and seek the good in each other and everywhere. They make a school where no one is lonely, hunted, or alien. They try to understand, with empathy and insight, those who transgress the norms of communal or civic life. They willingly offer up their hearts, their wisdom, and their values as gifts. In these moments Rumi is right—”even the phrase each other/ doesn’t make sense.” They live with full and evolving hearts, without walls, open to pain and joy. Then and only then does the field of existence become a perpetual unfolding.