Ways of Keeping Quiet in School

At the beginning of the year, I sometimes read to the kids this poem, “Keeping Quiet,” by Pablo Neruda.  (English translation by Alastair Reid)

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.     

There is a lot to the poem, but there are some specific parts that speak to our project here. Of course, we don’t want them to be still. We want them moving, shouting, laughing, trying, crying, explaining, re-seeing, describing, running, building, drawing, and talking. Nor do we want silence. We are a very verbal school. We cherish talking and discussing and joking. We love gentle, loving teasing. We love to hear and learn about the history of things–the history behind Stephen Spender’s poem. The history behind The Red Pony. The history behind math languages. The history of the earth. The history behind a family’s move. The history of a child’s journey at the school. We love to hear about it and know about it. We want to let every story in, important ones and less important ones. Our school is decidedly NOT quiet or still.

And yet. We ask for stillness. We ask for a place to be still. We try to slow down so we can have big and small conversations, to find the Big Mind. We began the week by walking the labyrinth. It was weedy and packed from a summer of neglect. In the silence, our steps whispered against the high grass. A slight grinding and crunching as we made our solitary journey on the sandy gravel in the midst of our peers. From the outside, it looked disordered. Monkish adolescents with their hands behind their backs, walking in every direction and seemingly going no where. On the inside, the mental interior, each person making their way. 

In a unicursal labyrinth like ours, there is only one way in and one way out. Each person follows the same lengthy journey, and each person travels it alone. But not really alone, because we are traveling together. We have a shared experience. Your journey, my journey, our journey. Each of us is at a different place, and yet, there we all are together. Each of us finding a center, the center. Each of us gets there in unique and similar ways.

Our school derives its effecting power from this dynamic. All of us are learning and growing together. An understanding that we are all at different places. A willingness to be patient and listen, walk slowly, honor the natural pace of things. 

However, Neruda writes, “What I want should not be confused/ with total inactivity. Life is what it is about.” After brief moments of quiet and introspection, we explode back into our life in school. Moving from class to class. Enormous collective laughter. Lyle the Trash-man coming for the Friday pick-up. Noise and chaos, sawing and hammering, as happened on the patio this week, with the beginning of the construction of the Burning School. A load of wood from Genevieve’s family—cut-offs from trees they have been milling on their property— gave us something to work with. We teachers did not get too involved. We brought in a couple of screw guns and that was it. A very “home-made” sun tower is taking form. It may eventually have a small “homemade” model of a single coronavirus hanging inside. I think the idea is for the Coronavirus to be obliterated and to burst upward into a live sustaining sun, but we are not sure. 

However it may be, the sounds of adolescents measuring, arguing, deciding, sawing, hammering, play-acting, joining–the clattering of wood, the scraping of the ladder over the patio stones, the voices saying, “What can I do?” the supervisors being bossy, the workers actually doing something. There is a happy chaos of activity which comes close to being performance art, a very strange and comical performance art. We purposely don’t get involved. It’s theirs to build. It won’t be perfect, it won’t be plumb. But it will have their handprints on it.

Others may not participate directly. One group made their own small structure off to the side in the grass, a neatly “woven” tent of short boards. It was done with no fanfare and near silence. It stands as testament that there are other kinds of building going on.  Others are in the woods, practicing reading their speeches to a classmate, or kicking a ball, or just watching bemusedly while sitting on the stone wall. The sun is bright and the year is before us.

So it is never really silent–not for long anyway. But from time to time we demand it. Because in silence new thoughts can take root. The noise and static of frantic socializing and anxious worrying can be stilled and a new thread can be picked up. We want to understand ourselves, see our life, understand something big. These kids, no more or less than us, want this for themselves. In the span between frenzied play, the variety of structures, ideas, and concepts we build in classes, and the moments of solitude and quiet, we can locate the many modalities of their beginning attempts to understand who they are and who they want to be.   

One poem read by Anika this week was from the poet David Whyte. It wasn’t actually a poem, but rather a part of an essay. It began like this: “Close is what we almost always are: close to happiness, close to another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up….Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there.”

I think this comes close (if I may say) to where we are. In the year we study Eutopia (this year) there is much ongoing thought around the impossibility of reaching an ultimate reality, or a perfect world. We can imagine it. We can hope for it. We can argue about it. We can debate the merit of one way of living as that compares to another. But we eventually come around to the idea that there is not ONE PLACE–there is no singular Utopia–but there can be a “good” place. A Eutopia. A place of goodness.

So what are the conditions in which the Good Place may be made and found? One starts from feeling. We ask: How do you want to feel? How does your brother or sister want to feel? How do we want our fellow humans to feel? What do we want for them? What can we do to build this place which honors each of us, allows us to become full, to strive and try, where we can express our sigular nature and grow as each of us will? What is the tension between conflict, peace, tension, flexibility, freedom, and responsibility?From this we have a beginning, as in their speeches, which are their first maps and legends for plotting an individual and collective course.

This is where we are now. Our best learning—as a school, and as individual scholars in each of the disciplines—comes when we accept we are close but not yet there, when we can always see, with a beginner’s mind, that we are in a continual progression. The poet Stanley Kunitz told James Wright: “I am in love with a wild perfection.” On one hand we hold the ideal out in front of us. On the other hand, we say, “it is always growing and changing, even as we ourselves are.” The process is wild—in the sense that it is alive, and we embrace that living and those unexpected turns and offshoots. For us, the best happens when we are fusing a clear sense of “where I was, where I am, and where I want to go.” This means a lot of higher-order abstract thinking. This kind of thinking is tiring and demanding. It’s what we do a lot of the time. A child will grow magnificently when they can see how they once struggled in math or science or writing, and clearly see what is hard now and what is easier, and then decide how they want to proceed. I must keep working because working got me to this point. Don’t let old patterns or thought or action become routine. Keep trying a new way. Learn from the past, but don’t be a slave to it or confined by it. Set a goal and work for it.

Perfection is not the aim: living fully is.

We are definitely in the just-beginning phase. The ninth graders are in a different place than the seventh graders. Sometimes we have said that for the seventh graders, they are just getting in the boat and rowing out to the mouth of the harbor. The eighth-graders are out in the middle of the ocean. They have a memory of the harbor from whence they came, and they have only vague intimations of the farther shore towards which they row. The ninth graders are still out of sight of the farther shore, but they can smell land, they are seeing high billowing cloud formations which are signs of what is to come. One of the beauties of this school is that as each of them goes on his or her own journey, everyone else is watching and helping and supporting them. This is what happens when they hear their speeches: they begin to discover each other as complex and evolving beings—wherever each of them is—and they cheer for each other, and they encourage each other.

When we are teaching, we will count to twelve. Then we step back and we watch. We never leave the room though, not truly, or entirely. We want them to have a sense of themselves, to begin to fill the room and school and world with themselves. And that special kind of “quiet” is what we are seeing and hearing now.

At the end of the week, we weeded the labyrinth. This has become an annual ritual. I think of it as cleaning the slate. Clearing the path. Renewing our vows for the journey. In thirty minutes, the weedy paths looked nearly like a spiraling Zen garden. All our hands made it so. Now we can walk in and move to the center. We won’t get to the perfect place, not entirely or ever, but we will get very close.

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