Four Days in September

On the morning we started school I first asked one student from each grade to pick a book off the shelf. “Pick an interesting title.” Our shelves are packed full of books—maybe 3000 in the big room. After a few seconds, three books were placed on the table in front of me. 

      The Oddysey

      The World of Edward Gorey

      How Could I Not Be Among You

“I’m going to use the titles of these books to say how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking about today, at this point in my life.”

I told them that I was nervous, scared even, full of anticipation and hope. Based on the titles I told them I was thinking about our odyssey as a school. I told them that I thought of each school year as an epic, filled with a variety of tales and adventures, some terrifying, some joyful, all of which will call from us as yet unseen powers, none of which we could ever predict or plan, and that in the end, my hope is that we will have traveled a great distances, nobly and together.

I told them that we are all on this odyssey together. I told them that as a teacher, I was prepared to end my summer solitude and enter into their world, whatever their world is, no matter if it is populated with strangeness or adolescent freaks, and then I showed them Edward Gorey’s drawings. “This is you guys here,” I said, holding up the book. I then told them that in my mind I never had any question about my choice to be among them. 

“All of my best thoughts and joys of mind and soul that I’ve experienced have come in large part from sitting and being with and listening to kids like you around this table. My life and experiences led me to this place and time—though I did not consciously plan to become a teacher in Vermont— but how could I not be happy and joyful to learn from you, to have my own thoughts sparked by yours?” 

Then I asked them all to get up in silence and spend a few minutes looking over the titles of the books on the shelves and pick out one or two that articulated, through only the title, how they were feeling. Some title that said something to them about this moment in their lives. 

Once they had their books in front of them, they wrote out a feeling or idea that was wholly their own. Not something delivered to them by a teacher or school system, but their own self-created conception of themselves in space and time.

Treasure Island: Because I think of the school as an island, and I am here to find treasures and I don’t know what they will be. 

The Way Things Work and 30,000 years of Art: Because there is so much we don’t know, and yet humans have been creating art from so long. We all have something to say. It’s a part of us. There is so much to be known about how things work—gravity, hair, even.

Let The Circle Be Unbroken: We ended last year, but we continue this year. We have to bring back from last year what we want to keep the school going. 

I Dream a World: I am thinking about what this year will be like.

Leap: Going into this is unknown. I don’t know what will happen. I have to just leap in.

No More Masks: We tend to hide. This school is about trying not to hide but to be real and to show it.

Ants on the Melon: I think of the school as the melon—it has sweetness and bad stuff like rinds and seeds, and we are the ants on it.

Living Your Dying: I have to experience everything here. I can’t just sit around and wait.

What Are People For: We are here to figure out what we are for. What we stand for, what we are supposed to do.

World’s End: Last year is ended. That’s the way it works. It’s up to us to make a new world.

Eyes on the Prize: I am trying to figure out what my goals are. I don’t know who I’m going to be.

Growing Up: That’s what’s happening. And it happens fast. This school is about that, and especially with the three grades.

A New Creation—Spiritual Voices: We are trying to make a new creation. I want to make something.

Utopia: Last year we studied and tried to make Utopia. Even though we are not studying that this year, it’s still our goal.

Witness: Part of being here is looking, listening, observing, and witnessing. I don’t talk a lot and I listen at first in order to figure out what to do and how to be.

I’m a Stranger Myself: Even though I was here last year, I am a stranger again. Because it is a new year, new people, new everything. 

Paradise Lost: Last year was not always paradise, but sometimes we got close to it. Now it’s gone and we have to start over.

Plain and Simple: Plain and simple is how I like things. But sometimes what is plain and simple is actually complex and not plain at all.

The Stranger: I come here and I feel like I am a stranger. I hardly know anyone and that feels weird.

Jung: The Undiscovered Self: We are trying to find ourselves here. We don’t know what we are going to discover.

The Craft of Poetry: We care about poetry at this school. We read it and write it and it’s an important part of what we do all the time and part of how we learn.

American Utopias: We studied this last year and we are trying to make one.

The Big Burn: Every year we create the burning school and it’s a way we remember the old year and start a new tradition.

What’s to Become of the Boy: Heinrich Boll—I thought of this like myself, even though I’m a girl. What will I become? What will become of this girl? How will I learn to free myself from my own cages.

The Invisible Man: Sometimes I feel invisible. We don’t want to feel that way. Nobody should feel invisible.

This Is My Century: This is my year. I want to take all the time I have and grow past what has held me down. I feel strong.

The Gift: This school is a gift. This book is a gift. Life is a gift.

The Promised Land: We are looking for it. But it’s not just promised: we have to make it.

Maiden Voyages: It feels like we are going on a voyage. If you’re a seventh-grader, it’s your maiden voyage. For seventh-graders, they are leaving the harbor. Eighth graders are halfway across and can’t see land in either direction. Ninth graders are getting closer to the new world.

Great Expectations: I have great expectations for myself, but I don’t know if I can live up to them.

The Crossing: To be in a crossing means to be between worlds. I am used to being between worlds because I have changed schools so many times. I have become used to it. But I don’t know what it will be like to stay in one place.

Brave New World: This is what it feels like coming into a new school.

Second Skin: I have two ways of being. There is the part of me that is easy going and relaxed and there is the part of me that gets anxious. I want to peel off the thin skin of anxiety and be the full self underneath.

The Elements of Grammar: Grammar is important because it’s how language works. We have to be able to communicate with each other. The grammar of our connections, the way we hold ourselves together with language and our connections with each other.

The Perfect Storm: I am hoping that this year will be a storm—not one that destroys me, but one that makes me change and changes me, that shakes me up enough to change me in a good wat.

There Once Was a World: The old school year is gone—good and bad has disappeared. That leaves us with a big responsibility.

Boundaries of the Soul: We are pushing to the edges to find out how far we can go.

The World’s Rim: I am perched on the rim, looking out into the unknown. My life is behind me, and the world is in front of me.

The above list could stand as a temporary manifesto of our educational project. As you may observe, it is already in them, and it arises organically, with very little prompting, virtually unbidden.

By this point, everyone has spoken. Every voice has been heard, every person has contributed an idea. None of the ideas are wrong. All of them are valuable. All of them tell us something about our desires, hopes, fears, awarenesses. Some hint at struggles and difficulties. Lurking behind some of the notions are bigger ideas, larger considerations, vast possibilities. But now we are moving.

I want them to begin thinking about their lives in a serious manner. To think about who they are, or were, who they are becoming, the directions towards which they want to move. I read them a quote by Frederick Douglass, remembering that only a short time ago it was revealed that our nation’s leader did not know who Frederick Douglass was. But more than that, I want them to think about what Douglass said about struggle:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

We began talking about speech ideas from this point. What is a struggle you have had? What is worth fighting or struggling for? What is the right way to fight? What progression do you seek? When have you failed, or when has your life gotten the best of you, and how did you respond? What experiences have you had that have forged your ideas and beliefs? What are you willing to work for, in yourself or for others?

But as is often the case, the responses from the kids took us in unforeseen directions. And by some strange occurrence, I had been handed a slip of paper earlier on that  morning that sent me off in a new direction. See, I am like a squirrel: if I find a good nut, I take it. It was part of an essay by Toni Morrison, in which she writes…

“Well, now you may be asking yourself: What is all this? I can’t save the world. What about my life? I didn’t ask to come here. Didn’t you? I put it to you that you did. You not only asked to be born, you insisted on your life. That is why you are here. No other reason. It was too easy not to be. Now that you are here, you have to do something you respect, don’t you? Your parents did not dream you up, you did. I am simply urging you to continue the dream that you started. For to dream is not irresponsible; it’s first order human business. It is not entertainment; it is work. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream,” he was not playing; he was serious. When he imagined it, envisioned it, created it in his own mind it began to be, and we must dream it too, give it the heft and stretch and longevity it deserves.”

I read this to the class as well. It is not unrelated to the words of Frederick Douglass. We are not playing. We have a responsibility. This is serious business. There is work to be done. You are here to envision a world. I Dream a World. The Perfect Storm. American Utopia. A New Creation. Eyes on the Prize. Great Expectations. This is My Century.

The miracle plainly evident is that the kids, without yet knowing it, are in conversation with the great thinkers and novelists and abolitionists and scholars and epic writers and artists and activists of history. Their lives are wound up in history, they are thinking about the same notions, and they are here because of those who envisioned it before them. So they owe it to the world, to the past and the future, to begin to play their part and begin to do something they will respect.

Our job is to help them bring it out as fully as we and they can, and celebrate when they do.

In the afternoon of the first day, three teams of students built geodesic domes out of sheets of newspaper outside on the sunny patio. This proved difficult to say the least. the paper crumpled. The tape got stuck. The structure sagged. What’s the first step? What am I supposed to do? What is my role? What am I able to do? How do I fit in? Do I give direction or do I take direction? Who is in charge? What needs to happen next? Am I being useful? What am I contributing? How do we overcome a challenge? What happens when it all breaks down?

We teachers gave very little support or direction. We wanted to see what they are, what they can figure out, where each of them is as an individual, and as a member of the whole. In the end, the domes were decorated, and the domes were named, and the domes stood for something.  Each dome, in its patched together, misshapen jangled mess, was a pretty fair representation of what we are right now. Not great, not bad. Standing up, barely, a mere skeletal frame, ready to be filled in.

On Wednesday Geeta read “Eve Remembering,” by Toni Morrison also. I had been planning on reading this in class and had given it to Geeta prior to receiving the portion of Morrison’s essay, so that was a happy coincidence.

It’s a beautiful poem, speaking from the voice of Eve, at the end of her life, explaining that for any difficulties leaving Eden might have presented, those were more than redeemed by a true life lived thereafter.  For  “gardens planted for a child”—those pre-made gardens of bliss—do not help to make a soul. A soul is forged through hard living. One learns the heights of summits by surmounting them: 

1

I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.

My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple

Fire red and humming.

I bit sweet power to the core.

How can I say what it was like?

The taste! The taste undid my eyes

And led me far from the gardens planted for a child

To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.

2

Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;

Lips forget what they have kissed.

My eyes now pool their light

Better the summit to see.

3

I would do it all over again:

Be the harbor and set the sail,

Loose the breeze and harness the gale,

Cherish the harvest of what I have been.

Better the summit to scale.

Better the summit to be.

Now our eyes pool the light. The thread here is woven into the first other threads. There is something always ahead in life.  Struggle is at the very heart of it. Struggle is to be embraced. “Be the harbor, and set the sail. Loose the breeze and harness the gale.” The Perfect Storm. The Second Skin. The Undiscovered Self. The Gift. Living Your Dying.

                                                                                 *

Their initial speech drafts are filled moments when each kid saw and could feel themselves alive in space and time. This is one of the things we set out for them to learn and understand: how to be themselves, themselves and no other, in space and time, even in the presence of others. To know the mind and heart of the person they are. In order to become themselves more fully, they have to see themselves honestly, as they are, as they conceived of themselves in the past, as they see themselves changing now. When they can do this, when their foundation is solid, they can begin to see far beyond themselves.

A boy’s memory of being teased on a trampoline one summer night brings tears. The details of the teasing are lost. The feeling is not. The feeling comes up in class. It becomes clear, sitting at the table, that the person each of us each is is filled with a thousand stories and all the associated feelings. This boy at the table, he now only remembers what happened after he was teased. He left the trampoline, and he walked around the perimeter of the yard, circling again and again, counting the paces. He remembered that, and that is part of his struggle. What in him distances him from the moment the pain was inflicted? What can he reclaim from that moment to begin to envision his dream? What is he circling for, and when he stops circling, what will he do?

There is hint of it when I ask him, “Why did you not punch your tormentor?” And he replies, through the hands he holds over his face: “Because I wanted it to be that when she grew up and stopped doing these things, I could say I never did a wrong thing. I never went to the low place like her. So I could say I did not do anything wrong.”

This is a beautiful commitment. But it is also the struggle. How long can one endure being the outcast or the alien? Indeed, Nat Turner could take being a slave for only so long before he turned murderously on his oppressor. Who can say which path is right? Silent endurance of suffering, or righteous violence in response.

Sam hears the first draft of his friend Declan’s speech. In it, Declan recalls times when, during the past year, his friends, Sam among them, teased him. Declan says he fell into a state of mental anguish. The narrative he has constructed spares no one, obscures no facts, does not equivocate. At the end of it, his friend Sam, sitting at the table, is not angry. Sam is crying. He is mad at himself, that his own fears of being an outcast or teased drove him to tease his friend Declan, who he loved then and loves now. Sam was in his own struggle then—who am I going to be, and what am I willing to do to preserve myself and others, and how do I mend this? Now, at this moment he feels he created nothing and only destroyed, and it is a terrible feeling. But the sun also rises. A full acceptance of his role in Declan’s suffering—his willingness to feel the consequences of what he did or did not do—gives him a vision of what he wants to do and can become. He knows he has a choice and responsibility to remake something, to do a new thing with greater courage and conviction. This is the crux of the writing we do: reinhabiting our struggles and difficulties, going backward, reckoning with actual lived experience—this is the way to the source of all wisdom and meaning. That is how we grow, that is how we go forward. 

One student starts his speech with this declaration. “All my life I have struggled with dyslexia.”  The value of his willingness to share this is nearly impossible to quantify. It is a magnificent thing, from the perspective of teaching and learning, that a student can come into a room and reveal something so personal, so raw, so hard. When I read the rough draft that followed that sentence, I already saw in him great courage and power. He is not hiding. He is willing “to loose the breeze and harness the gale.” He is already fully present, to teach, know, and to love. He wrote: “It was hard to sit inside while other kids were outside playing and working on reading and writing. But I learned to use elbow grease.”

No student that I can remember in 28 years of teaching has used the words “elbow grease.” Ah, but it is so perfect, and so in tune with everything we tried to open up in the first days talking about struggles and hard work. He’s ninety-five percent of the way there. On Friday morning I told him all of this while the whole class listened: how reading his work woke me up, and made me excited to come in and tell everyone what I had learned from him.

I asked Iris to tell about a moment from the week. She stumblingly and improvisationally meandered through a tale of what happened in science class. Her sketch is filled with details—of her surroundings, her teacher’s voice, the objects in the shelves, the notebooks, the vocabulary on the board. Iris is marvelously and acutely self-aware, of her feelings and of what is actually happening with the balloon, sugar, yeast, the graduated cylinders.  As an older kid, she is able to inhabit her body in time and space. Able to see herself feeling and seeing. But what she wanted to tell us about was the moment, during all that, when she looked at her classmates and felt, for the first time, that she wanted to be partners in the science lab with all or any of them. There was no one she was afraid of. No one who bugged her. No one she was mad at. She was joyfully content to look through microscopes with any of her classmates, because, though time and struggle, she has come to know and love each of them.

Then I made her write it. And this time, her sketch was a composed, balanced, nuanced, poetic artifact. A statement of where she’s been and where she wants to go. A snap-shot of her dream and a dream of what school can be.

Jacques did not listen to me when I said to write about something that happened in the first four days. When he read his scene it was evident that he had something far more important and pressing to say. It was welling up in him, ready to spill.  He wrote about a time from the previous year at his old school. He had befriended a boy with Downs syndrome. Jacques was his buddy, took care of him, and was often tagged by teachers to partner with the boy. But one day on the playground, standing with the boy, Jacques wanted to go play with others. So he left the boy alone in the middle of the playground. 

“I just left him. It felt terrible.” The feeling of having abandoned that boy now has Jacques to tears and his voice was trembling. 

“But what you did was not wrong,” I said. “You were the one who loved the boy and took care of him. You are also a boy who wants to go play with others. That’s a human thing. You wanted to go be with your peers and play. No one is guilty of doing something natural and human. But your other self, which you’re showing bravely now in the depth of these feelings, is that you have a self that is also Super-Human. Someone who can give to someone else. You are someone who has so much in you that you gave love and care and companionship to someone else who needed it.  That’s also what you are teaching and revealing.”

We have now learned something about moral struggle, and also Jacques’ morality. We’ve learned that he cares, and we have begun to learn how he cares.

It will be some time before he or any of them can take their experiences and manifest them consciously and intentionally in the school. But they will learn to do this. They will learn to take what they have learned and turn it into something beautiful. 

                                                                                *

At Lake Pleiad, we took our chance to make something beautiful. Though it is hard to improve on what was already there. Which reminds me, and I hope all of us, that we are part of something far larger than we can imagine. Although we all have powers like Jacques and Iris and Jonah and Declan and Sam, we are also quite tiny relative to what is above, below, and around us. Rose tried to be like a bird and made a nest with bundles of grasses and twigs. She found, even with her fingers and two opposable thumbs, that making a nest is extremely difficult, and that birds can do it with only their beaks. She knelt before her creation with a renewed humility about human limitation and the power of little creatures.

In the silence of the woods, with the sound of sticks snapping and feet scampering in the leaf detritus, with the wind rustling the over-story, we knelt in the understory and built little sculptures of what we could find: moss, mushrooms, twigs, ferns, flowers, berries, vines, logs, stones. 

This is, of course, an analog for what we are all about. I do not have much genius educational theory except this: anything of value will be made from us, by us, and for us, from whatever is close at hand. The kids in the room, and who they are. The powers and material are already there. What wants to happen, tries to happen, does happen, this is our syllabus. Latent or as yet to be discovered; timid, undefined, hesitant, shy, or unsure.  Whatever it is, whatever issues forth, there needs to be an axis Mundi which gathers the powers, a focal point where we can all be there to feel and see what matters most where we gather to see what we are and made. This is what the school aims to be.

In the woods on Friday we had already come a far distance from those first spindly geodesic domes. In the works made in the woods there was density and color, depth and hidden places, minute fairy houses or towering structures built without rule or form. The shaky utterances taken from book titles speeches on the first day will grow into towering manifestos, the best each of us can do in each moment. 

Before we took off for our sculpture building, we had spent some time in the basement drawing leaves. Steve demonstrated how to start lightly. “Just move your pencil over the paper without setting anything down. Just practice the motion a few times. Sort of like little practice swings.”

We started putting down lines. In time they will become deeper and more committed, more confident and defined. And then we will really be making something.

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