Making Eutopia


The second week of remote NBS is in the books (or screen). We are trying to see it for what it presents: possibility, a chance to try our skills at something different, the challenge to do it better than it’s been done. We’re dealt a hand of cards, we play the best ones we’ve got. Again, as ever, we find that the knitted fabric of togetherness and contact is the most important and most difficult element to sustain. But we are still connected, and there is joy and laughter in every class. We look forward to reading the kids’ comments in the meeting log every morning. We look forward to our classes. We look forward to signing off at the end of the day. The regular check-ins and the hundreds of pages of daily meeting comments  have made it feel as though we have some continuity. . When the kids say goodbye on Zoom at the end of each class, it has a special poignancy. We feel our having been with each other, and we are assured that we will be back together again the next day.

On Saturday Elise sent me a curated list of quotes that had been said, written, overheard, or copied down over the week, from Meeting comments to Zoom meetings to Google Chats to classes to books we’d read, videos watched or listened to.  Some of the quotes were from teachers, some were from students, some were from documentaries we showed. (See here ). Elise said that since we did not have Weekly Notes, this could serve as a sort of stand-in record. In essence, Elise looked at the situation and made an adaptation,  Over the years I have learned that when the kids start making something new out of something broken or old, then we are really doing it right. Whether it is making a play out of an old joke from October, or a church steeple out of screws and pine-boughs, or staging a wedding in the field with dresses made of butcher paper and burlaps sacks. Whether it is a sculpted face made out of bent wire or a game using a tarp that everyone learns or a perfectly set table for 29 people for a pizza feast. When the kids invent and those inventions are suffused with love and fun and joy, when a new tendril shoots out or a blossom emerges from the muck—those are the high points. Elise’s list is a new branch growing off what we are doing. When you read it you will see a smidgeon of the many fruits of just one week of school.

I reminded the kids over the last days that they had done everything they had needed to do as a class up to the point when we had to close the school. They had done it exactly right, according to the dictates of this year, these circumstances, this collection of humans. All of their mistakes, all our screw-ups, all our good days and bad days—all of it had fallen and played out exactly as it should have. The Nineties had led; the Eighties had stepped up; the Sevies had come into the school with vigor and courage. 

Having done this a fair long time now, I’ve come to know that certain occurrences at certain points in the year foretell certain outcomes. For instance, if there is a Ninth-grader who takes on the mantle of leading the building of the Burning School structure, and does that by incorporating seventh and eighth graders as “apprentices,” it’s going to be a great year. If older kids come in with their voices shaking and then cry in the first class on the first day when I ask, “How do you want to live?” we will have a higher degree of emotional openness and a deeper experience of learning. If the kids flock to the science room one day at lunch for some wild dancing and laughter around Rose’s table, and then the next day assemble in a large group the math room to receive the rules straight from Steve concerning the latest version of “Assassin;” and then on the third day the building because the entire school left at lunch to go play in the snow on the Hill, then the school is humming and all is going to plan. 

The corollary: if there are conflicts, tears, frustration, agitation, stubborn problems, and knotty dilemmas, and the kids are talking together about it, we are still going to get somewhere good. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we welcome creative tension. No growth or change can happen without tension. We find ourselves at an impasse. Currents of anger or fear or indecision may be present. Still, we gather together to examine it and let the feeling play out and be expressed. Listening, and moving carefully, sometimes achingly, we determine our needs and our options. We decide on how to move together. A new situation is born out of the old. We move and build again. It is not clean, it is not perfect, but we say that living in these difficult moments is as important as creating and living in joyful moments. 

So we are always on the lookout for these moments, good or bad, hard or easy. Some of these “indicators” happen at precise and predictable times. It is the day that the Fed Ex man walks into the room and asks me to sign for the shipment of toilet paper. I say to him, “I’ll have my associate sign. Greyson?”  Greyson looks around in terror and shock and points to himself, mouthing the words, “Me?”  “Yes, Greyson, you’re my associate, get your fanny over here and sign for this toilet paper.” From that day forward Greyson is more fully visible in the eyes of his classmates. The day of Burning School, Rose arrives in the science room to start making pizzas, and all the the ninth-grader are already there assmebled before her, with aprons on and music playing from a mini-speaker, the fire already lit in the bread oven. In the week before Thanksgiving, a ninth-grader will say, “Tal, when are we doing peanut sales!?” and then there will ensue a half-hour’s worth of reminiscing about the comedy of errors and surprise and hilarity about the previous two years’ Peanut Sales. In March a musical-minded student will say, “Should we start getting the music together for the play?” I will say, “Yes, you organize it and let everyone know.” These moments occur with such perfect regularity that I think of them as the stars in the constellation of our school year; I can know where we are and how far we have to go and our relative speed simply by their sudden and steady bright appearance week after week.

On the Tuesday before we closed the school, we had been in play rehearsal. Ezra was absent. Someone shouted, “Who’ll be Marge?” Marge was Ezra’s character. A chorus of shouts answered, “I will! I will!” “Oscar, you’re it!” I shouted. Oscar proceeded to bumble through Marge’s lines. It was impossibly comical. He didn’t know where to stand or which way to go or where to look. His ramshackle but determined imitation of Ezra’s Marge was ridiculously and perfectly awful and spectacularly free and uninhibited.  All twenty-five of us broke up laughing, doubled-over, breathless, red-faced, coughing, stomach-hurting laughter. Everyone laughing, together, at the same time, at the same thing, for the same reason. Not one iota malicious, and Oscar laughing the hardest. All mad joy, nobody on the outside, everyone on the inside, all of us together. It took a good two minutes to gather ourselves and reset the scene again. And then the laughing started all over.

This happens every year sometime in the middle of March. We’re down in the dark, dirty basement with our terrible play and our unfinished script, with the usual currents of irritation and frustration and chaotic un-doneness, and then through some mysterious cosmic predetermined order, the last vestiges of walls or veils between us dissolve, and we are all in the unity of understanding of our mutual and shared being. No one ever sees this but us. No audience, no parents, no graduation crowd. Never again is the play so funny as that moment, so perfectly timed, so true. 

I told the kids that that is eutopia. That moment when everyone is suddenly and naturally and unexpectedly stitched together. All the work of the months before. All the tension and arguments and fears and screw-ups and half-done work and all the good moments, too, now have their denouement, here in the basement at 2:48 pm on Tuesday under the chicken lights. Such a moment is not a miracle. It was made through work and time, and it arrived right when it was supposed to, and they lived it together. Those moments are brief and they are rare, but they had a taste of it.  And they will taste it again.

I told all of them that we will, no matter what, “end this year” in a way that is fitting and celebratory. We can’t know when that will be. But at the first suitable moment, at the first chance we can, we will assemble to celebrate our year and what was made and learned. And let’s be clear, the learning is still going on and in, and perhaps in deeper ways than we could imagine. We will gather somewhere. We will hike to the top of a mountain. We will light a raging bonfire. We will play a fully-costumed Wiffle Ball game; we will hold a graduation ceremony in which we will read our speeches and say thank you, thank you and goodbye to the ninth graders. 

In the meantime, we can only do what we can do and that is, simply, to stay together. This has been the essential teaching and learning in the last two weeks. It will have to be the central learning for the next many more weeks to come. We play the best cards we’re dealt. As Sam wrote in the meeting notes, we still have time.  “So we can’t just say it isn’t gonna happen. It might not be looking up. But if we don’t think positively then we won’t enjoy the time we have on this. We still got time on this. We have gotten so much better at it. And once we get fully ahold of it we are going to be professionals. So if this is what we got, we are going to be the best online school in the state.”  

We still have time, a lot of it, and we will try to use it as best as we can.

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