The Most Pressing Questions

When we begin we start with big questions as fast as we can, to get moving, as fast as we can, to begin to go far, as far as we can. The first question was: how are you feeling, right now? In this moment, sitting in this room? I have them close their eyes so that they can shut out the many new and dizzying distractions. No reactions of others to gage.  Try to be as undefended as you can, so you can know the ground YOU are standing on.

 The answers are variants of scared. excited. nervous. anxious. eager. Hopeful. Full of faith, wondering, comfortable, “not here yet,” confident, determined. Everyone speaks in the first hour, and now we are all here. 

The next question: how do you want to live? How should you live? What does it mean to live “well.” What is the way to spend a life, if it must end and too soon? 

Bukowski says: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” 

He also says: “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”

Or as Wislawa Szymborska writes:

“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.

I had meant to ask him

the same question.

 Again, and as ever,

as may be seen above,

the most pressing questions

These give us something to push off from. The answers to these “most pressing questions” and the resulting declarations will become beginning-of-the-year speeches. The speeches are filled with experiences, moments, ideas, and intentions, and by setting them down each student sets their own course. At the same time, we will end up with an informal manifesto of our collective end aim: the completed speeches will comprise the vision of a group of a people who have declared how they want to live and be together and how they will travel together.

In order for these speeches to really have grit and substance, we ask that the kids commit themselves to digging deep. Not to just say how one wants to live, but to show the origin of those ideas, which of course will be found in examining the amplitude of one’s lived life. That is, the kids are encouraged to find the origins of their intentions, the source of their ideas, the seed of their wisdom. “One who is able to realize the truth of one’s own mind has sown the seed of Buddha-hood,” wrote Paul, quoting the Buddha on the white-board in the big room. 

The Buddha’s idea is not too different from our own. We are pushing to find the truths inside ourselves. This requires various amounts of directness, honesty, questing, trust, courage, humor, self-revelation, self-disclosure, or self-deprecation, and a willingness, to the degree one is comfortable, to share it in the learning community.  

In the decades of doing this I have come to an understanding that is practically a physical law: So long as the school is a safe and supportive place and filled with the spirit of communal inquiry then happiness, humor, emotional richness, openness, learning, wisdom, excitement, wonder, love, compassion, and unity will thrive. As these qualities thrive, the safety of the school and the spirit of communal inquiry grows. 

Our first task then is to make it safe, safe for feelings, whatever they may be, and safe for all kinds of minds and experiences, whatever they may be. 

By writing speeches that are personal and true, we move with directness to a place where we are all in it together, sharing who and what we are, what our hopes, dreams, and needs are. We begin to see all these minds and feelings and thoughts. The collective begins as a sketch–a kind of unfolding human mandala, and we begin to see human variation and geometry, colors, patterns, and all various permutations, intricacies, and intimations of infinity that you can get when you put a bunch of growing, changing people of good spirit in a room. When it happens, as it now is, it is thrilling and beautiful.

By the morning of the fourth day, I asked the kids to do an accounting of all that they had done, felt, or thought—at home or in school—since the first day on Tuesday. Their answers provide a snapshot of the energy, activity, and diversity of experience as it has been lived so far in the school.

I felt love for my sisters when I saw them again. I made plans for being organized and responsible. I didn’t talk to Jholai, but I really wanted to. I shot a potato cannon. I realized Celeste is very intelligent and meaningful. I felt jealous of Declan. I remembered that fabric is stitched like chain-mail. I saw Tal try to smile and then pant with exhaustion. I heard Henry Swan yell at Sasha, and then apologize profusely. I learned more about the importance of words. I wrote an email to Lena. I felt overwhelmed. I burst out laughing looking at an art book with Luke. I felt happy. Tal called me a rock-hound. I ate birthday cake. I felt excited about geodes while breaking rocks in science. I started writing a speech about how I want to live. I made a poster in the basement. I pet Giles’ dog Blue. I tried to reconnect to my class. I tried to draw a picture of Tal. I tried to think about why most of the boys in my class don’t want to talk to me. I learned I am excited for math. I tried to help Isabell and Luke connect to the school. I learned more about Paul from his science bag. I got motivated to write. I made a mobile out of nature. I learned part of Alex’s story. I started to go back to my corner. I pondered about how we know and do not know things. I felt sad when Geeta was talking in class. I found the goose egg I left here last year still here. I realized I am not as close as I want to be to the whole school. I answered the question, “How do you want to live?”  I talked with my mom about East Germany. I read the entire book Animal Farm in less than 24 hours. I am excited for soccer. I already made a rough outline for my Utopia project. I ran through the woods being chased by Declan, the wind on my face and Joe beside me.  I was thankful for new friends. I thought about what “epistemology” is. I felt anxious when I sat in the woods. Henry helped me when my bike got stuck. I thought about how this school is my new family. Nate and Joe showed me everything in the school. I thought about the hike. I felt sad when Geeta cried. I asked Tal if I could bring in my dog. I looked at the flowers that Isa brought in I checked that a poem I memorized over the summer is still in my head. I watched Isa, Geeta, Iris, Isa, and Una make Tal a strange birthday card, and I felt included, even though I wasn’t helping. I helped Celeste crack open a geode. I remembered what “meta-cognition” means. I thought about why a poet referred to death as a “she.”  I made flower crowns with my family and friends. I fell out of a tree while playing pokey stick. I drew a portrait of a face. Alex and I researched uses for Pascal’s triangle. I made a scavenger hunt for Declan. I felt sad about Creed not being here. I set up class for Tal. I saw Henry B. get attacked by bees.  I read and thought about a poem called “Fern Hill.”  I examined the engine of the car at school. I looked at a book about D-Day. I have been working on a speech about who I want to be. I thought about whether I was close to my class again. I felt anxiety when I started working on my speech. I started to appreciate the posters on the upper big room wall. I found a mouse nest in the air filter of the car. I yelled out to Isa. I talked to Tal about my overall life in summer, and wondered why he cared so much to ask. It felt good to talk, but a little strange. I thought about the moment in the entry with Ben last year, and when that happened, I felt sad.  I felt hopeful that Alex will be a great new math teacher, because she is young and relatable. I was nervous that I would not be able to hold my end of the school up. I made a good notebook in science. I volunteered to do class notes. I pumped up the soccer balls for Tal. I bonded with Henry Swan. I missed Will. 

In addition: we hiked to Lake Pleiad. Asked questions about landforms and the mountains. Sat in silence on the rock. Took a class picture. Built sculptures in the woods. Swam in the lake. Started a class-note book. Listened to John Coltrane; weeded the labyrinth. Made science notebooks and artistic collages. Placed flowers on the table; talked about the new school bell. Played soccer. Decorated sticks with natural materials and hung them in the trees. Made sculptures with pasta and marshmallows, which melted in the hot sun. Played pokey stick; meditated. Contemplated the meaning of the Dhammapada quote: “Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery.” Discussed who we had not talked to in the class so far and why not?  Had our first meetings, poems, classes. Collected flowers at Lake Pleiad; Had class in the basement because it was 100 degrees in the big room; 

Una read the poem “Sunflower Sutra” by Allen Ginsberg to the class on the first day.  Henry B. directed the clean-up system and volunteered to be the soccer goalie.  Isa brought in the flower “Indian pipe,” which is thought to aid in resolving grudges and which lacks chlorophyll–and she came out for Prunes soccer. Elise took on the job of being the Undercurrent Managing Editor. Nate volunteered to do the weekly notes, then asked Tal if he could do it again, because he wants to do it better. Eli brought read a book faster than he ever has and was able to keep his eyes closed for an entire hour-long conversation. Swan made a funny “Pac-man” journal cover, rode his unicycle to school, and made Tal laugh with witty jokes. Joe and Nate biked to school on the first day, and Joe came in early on another day and he and Tal talked in the big room. Geeta told us we have to live on top of the mountain with twigs in our hair. Alex told us her brother is in the army, and she respects what he is doing because it is difficult, and he loves what he is doing, just like she is. Paul held up the singing bowl and led the meditation, and wrote quotes from the teachings of the Buddha. Tal said he wants us to work like he did, stacking wood in the middle of a dark and pelting thunderstorm and not stopping until the woodpile is huge. Geeta made a sign-up sheet for a cooking competition. Iris wanted to get a Golf Cart for the school. Sam found a truck on Craig’s list for one dollar.  Jholai told us she had skipped 6th grade and she was nervous. The class told her that that is okay and she will be incredible. Isabelle brought rocks and crystals to school. Luke drew an eye in his notebook. Finley and Dylan went deep into the woods. Phoebe tried to learn to ride the unicycle. Dinara talked about courage, determination, and not being anxious. Iris danced in the dark to make the basement lights come on. Rose was remembering her mother. Vivian decided that YES, she will play soccer. Dylan raised his hand in class and spoke boldly. Eli was articulate about how to make the school a safe place. Sam told us how he had found his Declan. Declan said he was find-able again if anyone needed to find a Declan.  

There is already so much happening. We are excited to crack open the metaphorical geodes and discover the crystals inside.

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