Cultivating Work-Lust

Half the time I’m telling them what to do, how to live, the right way to do a thing. This is how you re-read your words to edit them. Keep a list of your dreams. Make a picture of the idea. Fill in the white space in your mandala. Ask the question again. Read the passage out loud. Fill in the blank spaces in your mosaic. Add a detail to the detail. Don’t stop until you know what you want to write next.

I try to be a voice strong and insistent enough to get inside them. He said to do this. The solution here is to see it from above, float over it, get some distance. 

Other times I let them lead, as on last Monday, when Joe proposed that we mimic part of the last pages of Siddhartha. There, Siddhartha’s follower Govinda asks Siddhartha to tell him what’s he’s learned in life, what secrets or doctrines he can pass on before their final parting. Siddhartha responds by picking up a small pebble, and launches into a monologue about the wisdom he has accrued.

Joe’s idea was that at the beginning of class we would all go outside in silence and pick up our own rock, meditate with it, then bring in into class for discussion. I said, “Great idea.”

We read the pebble passage in class and then they headed out the door. While the were outside in the woods looking for their meditating rocks, I went to the office to discuss other matters. When I returned to the classroom, they were all back around the table, each of them with a stone or pebble, or in the case of Celeste, a breadloaf-sized rock, and they were in the middle of conducting their own conversation without me.

When this happens I know they they care about their learning and what happens here. I know they are making the school something of their own, with their hand prints on it.

I want them to learn to care. For their school work.  For the school. For their families. And for each other. I want them to begin to carry the small burden of anxiety that comes from being old enough to care about things around and beyond them. I think of it as a small voice inside of them that speaks just above a whisper, “Remember and hold everything as precious. You have to make it become something more.”

I sometimes show them the corner of a prominent bookshelf in my classroom. The top of the shelf could have been joined with a simple butt-joint. But the edges of the shelf would not have aligned, and over time they would have separated. The shelf would still hold books, but it would be neither beautiful nor properly joined.

Instead, however, the shelf-top is made with two different kinds of wood and is flawlessly mitered, with a wooden spline of a different color wood joining the corner, so that the spline is visible, gleaming brightly with shellac.

“Someone took the time to do this right,” I tell them, pointing “The carpenter took pride and time in what he was doing. The skill and the care is visible, right here. It could have been done crappily and fast and without thought, but it wasn’t.”

On Monday morning all the 8th and 9th graders had mandalas they’d drawn as a final assignment for finishing Siddhartha. They were to have chosen a quote from the book, words that conveyed their strongest feeling about the book, and place the quote at the center of their design.

I asked them them if they were happy and proud with what they’d made. Isa had hers sitting on top of her books.

“How do you feel about how it came out?” I asked.

“Pretty good, but I ran out of time. I loved doing it. I worked on it from 8-2 on Sunday. I wanted to put more color up in these corners.”

“Lena, are you happy with yours?”  Hers was buried under her books, computer, and laying face down.

“Not really. “

“Why not?”

“Because when I came in I thought mine wasn’t good.”


“Because I looked at other people’s.”

What she’d brought in was not accompanied by knowing pride. Instead, she measured it against what others had done. But what was her standard, independent of the world, that she could use to set her direction and measure progress towards her goal.

“If you have your own standard, and you met it, you’ll be satisfied,” I said. “If you have a standard and you didn’t meet it, you can be disappointed. But if your only standard is what others do, you’re kind of flying blind. You have to know what your vision is and how to get there, and eventually that has to be independent of what others do.

 She stared at me, nodding faintly. 

“You are no one but yourself, and you have to learn how to be satisfied with yourself or not, to know on your own terms, by your own lights what is good, great, poor, your own constantly pushed-against limits.  Find your own limit, and move yourself there. Don’t look at others and then judge yourself.”

The day a student comes in excited about what her or she has made, wanting to show it to the world—that is when I know they are teaching themselves, directing their own lives, going deeply into their work, becoming forgetful of judgment, all the while being disciplined and self-aware. Once that happens, students become self-propelled. Learning, knowledge, even wisdom, can be self-generated.

“If you’ve made it to that place, where you almost don’t want to give it in to me, when it feels precious to you, or you want to take it home and put it on your wall, then you will know that you are really doing it.”

We ask them to begin to learn how to care, at this threshold between childhood and adulthood. Start caring now, just as Goknur, Paul’s family’s international student from Turkey, implied we must when she came to speak to us on Thursday. She told us that the age when girls decide to wear the hijab occurs at puberty. To be adult is to decide how one is going to live, to make decisive steps towards self-representation and responsibility. In Goknur’s case, she chose to become an adherent to her religious and cultural tradition.

So it is that we ask the students here to become adherents. For us, that means having a consciousness about what it is we are trying to do, and committing oneself to the trying. We do this by challenging them to think about their work, and what it means, or could mean. What it says about their commitment and willingness to extend their own boundaries. We do this by asking them directly: What do you care about? What is important to you? And we do this by asking them to care about little things, like the corner of a shelf, or the edges of a drawing, or having the just-right title for their story. When they care about little things, they will care about big things.

 It was like the other day, when Will decided that, even though circles are difficult to cut in stained-glass, he was going cut a circle because his idea for his stained-glass demanded it. His image was a mandala of a flower, and the center, a one-inch diameter ruby disk, had to be just right. When he came up from the basement, he’d cut his fingers six times.

“Tal, I did it.”

“What, cut your fingers?” I asked.

“No, I cut a circle. Come down and see it.”

In the clay room he showed me the small glass disk —no bigger than a quarter, but something he cares about, something he bled for.

This kind of caring, this attention to completion and integrity, showed up in Paul’s character sketch of his dad, which was nine-and-half pages. In it he uncovered an old memory that expressed deep care for his past, stories, dreams, and his connection to his father.

My dad tells us that when he was little, his dad used to read to him a book called The Wonder Clock. It is a book of stories written in Old English, usually about a poor, clever lad who won a princess for a wife by tricking the king. My dad loved to read us these stories, and the voices he used always went right along with how the story felt.. I remember that every night, my dad would read a story from The Wonder Clock to us, and we would look forward to it, and together we would find the chapter we wanted to hear, and hand the book to my dad, pointing to the page where it began. As he read, we would lie on our backs, looking at the ceiling, and imagining the textured white tiles were a landscape in which the story was taking place. The story would be food for our dreams, happy dreams about what I would do if I met a wise old crane by the riverside.

Hearing his words made us care about Paul, the small child nestled up next to his dad on a sofa. It made us care about an old book, and about his father, about reading at night with parents, and even about old cranes by the riverside. He made us see that childhood is a sparkling, multi-faceted jewel. Or, he simply took enough care to see his own life in such a way.

I think of lines by Seamus Heaney, who wrote a great sequence of poems called “Station Island” in which he imagines the ghost-voice of James Joyce speaking to him and giving him advice on how to write and carry himself. 

       What you must do must be done on your own

       So get back in your harness. The main thing is to write
       For the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
       That imagines its haven like your hands at night

      Dreaming the sun in the sunspot of abreast.
      You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
      Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

      Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
      Let go, let fly, forget.
      You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

This place of doing that Heaney describes is exhilarating. Athletes call it “being in the zone.” Musicians call it being in the “groove.” There is work to be done, certainly, the harness, the work-lust, and a certain amount of danger. But the thing we are looking for is that wild energy, the willingness to throw one’s self into it, to abandon notions of safety and predictability. Then they are no longer listening to me or anyone else. Then they are authoring lives of their own.

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