The Light Inside

A lot is happening in the schools in Addison County. A  lot is happening in our school. The disparity in the environment of our school vis-a-vis others has got me thinking about what we do that creates the environment we have.  For one thing, we—all of us, teachers, staff, students, and parents—laugh, a lot and often. There is joy and humor to be found everywhere during our school days. Over the years, I have come to see that a school must have a sense of humor. How could it not, when we are with middle schoolers. I take as my guru on this matter Jimi Hendrix in “All Along the Watchtower.” I mean, on Friday it was “Pajama Day,” and we began with a rundown on the names of our stuffed animals, (Lulu, Bun-Bun, and Big Fish), a disquisition on “Squish-Mellow” Pillows, and whether we had hit a new all-time low when we discussed the composition of toe-cheese before school had even started. And while we might be able to see that life is but a joke, we also take the other view, that life is utterly precious, and we must make every moment count. We approach our teaching, our way of being, our collective enterprise, with a most acute sense of both humor and seriousness. Between those poles, we have immense space to explore everything under the sun: definitions of words like “contentious,” the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, play-acting, inventing songs for the “Holiday Rocks” concert (punnily named by Rose), inspired by the Amoeba People’s nerd-rock song about the “crazy man” Alfred Wegener’s founding theory about continental drift (see below), or making robots to earn the school currency of Klonbecks. But also, how voices from the past speak to us, or the poetry of Robert Frost, whether the world will end in fire or ice, if we’ve had enough of hate, and what organizing systems bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people.   

In literature, we talked about finding the rooms inside us, the deep places that have light in them, like the tiny light deep in the back of Boo Radley’s house. About how we slowly grow in our understanding of love, death, and friendship, shedding our old ideas and perceptions to gain greater awareness, in the same way that Scout and Dill Baker Harris grow towards awareness as their storehouse of experiences expand.  As in the town of Maycomb, we look at what happens when something harmful comes into the garden, like nut-grass or rumors, or fear is allowed to take root and spread. We have to work harder to root it out and not let it take over, be willing to put up resistance to that which might ruin or infect our enterprise. As individuals, we have to have the courage to be ourselves truly, like Miss Maudie, who is free and independent, gardening by day in men’s coveralls and a big straw hat, reigning with magisterial grace over her porch in the evening, only ever concerned with the mimosa’s scent, and not caring less for gossip or morbidity. Miss Maudie will garden for all of her days, even if fundamentalists believe she is a sinner who “will burn to hell with her flowers.” She stands strong, and nothing can extinguish the light she carries, and this becomes yet another lesson for Scout.       

We started writing our stories. I used a scene from an old NBS story, about a boy who set out to see if he could find something in his house that he had never seen. He eventually found a small drawing of an elderberry bush by his grandfather. He had not known his grandfather was an artist of any kind. He was surprised and moved by the delicacy of the drawing, with its carefully shaded leaves and limbs that had clusters of berries carefully rendered. He found that so long as he looked, so long as he consciously moved towards an expansion of his mind and his world, he would make new discoveries.  I posited that this house he searches is really an analog to the body of a human, and the “house” he is searches is no more nor less a searching of the rooms of his heart, life, and experience. He seeks for what matters, for what has depth, resonance, and meaning. So when we start thinking about writing a story, we have to look inside ourselves to see what is there—to examine the past and the infinite catalog of memories and experiences. We surmised that there might be for each of us anywhere from 10,000 to 1,000,000 important life-shaping moments. We made our target for story ideas to be “anything that has happened, big or small, long ago or recent, that changed, marked, made, or affected us.” All of these bits matter, each person has a story, each person is a Galahad. When one begins to look at these bits carefully and see them as treasure, one sees matrices of meaning and connection. A memory of a visit to a museum and seeing the great renaissance paintings of the deaths of religious martyrs suddenly has a different resonance when linked to a memory of reading a book about the Holocaust in fifth grade, or seeing homeless children for the first time. When the events that comprise a life are put together, each event takes on a new and sparkling potency, has new radiance and significance. Meaning is made when this is put next to that. A small, newly born fish—like the one that magically appeared in the fish tank in the science room this week—is afraid in the world, alone, peering out, isolated, tentative. Add this event to another event, the new student who comes into the school for the first time on Monday, likewise afraid in a new world, alone, peering out, isolated. When we see these situations with clarity, when we talk about them, raise them up, and give them attention, we can act more directly and appropriately within our sphere of influence—to perhaps see when we ourselves have felt so alone, and so reach towards the solitary person, and make them feel not alone.       

The story of To Kill a Mockingbird is not really about Atticus’ “heroism” so much as it is about Scout, Jem, and Dill and how they begin to “knock” on the Radley’s door and the doors of the wider world. They are learning that you have to move fearlessly towards that which you do not know in order to know it, to see it with your own clear vision. One can be afraid of a stranger, sure. Or one can invite them out, and tell them you won’t hurt them, and say, “Let’s go for ice cream.” One can be persistent, trusting, and open-hearted, and so the world enlarges.  

Our students are mostly happy to be this way, as children tend to be. If there is any wonder why our school is generally a so loving and happy place, it is not necessarily because our kids different from any other kids in the world, but because we spend a lot of time inviting each other out and talking about the need to be invited out. We talk to each other, learn to reach over the petty walls and fences and boundaries between us with an understanding that each of us wants to belong and matter and that each of us has something of value to give. Slowly, like a photographic image appearing in the darkroom, we witness the process of a community forming in which individuals thrive and all of us can see how all of us matter.    

At the North Branch School, we work to make space for the twenty-six individuals. It takes time and patience to find and see the light that is way off in the back of the house. Yes, the outside may appear gray or weathered or closed, foreboding or repellent or odd or different, but we have to believe there is always something good living inside.      

Earlier in the week, I had put forward to the kids a statement a student had made many years ago: “The most important question we must ask ourselves, in every moment, is where should we be?” He meant this in terms of morality, action, engagement, attention. What is our posture, he asked, with regard to each moment? Alert and curious, or disinterested and indifferent? Committed and caring, or careless and heedless? Broad-seeing and circumspect, or narrow and blinkered?
      At the end of the week, we had a visit from Zosha Andersson, Oscar’s grandmother, who was born in 1943 in Prague, and who had to be smuggled out of Czechoslovakia in 1948 when the Communists came to power. She recounted how she then later smuggled all of her family’s remaining treasures out of the country: little silver jewel boxes, paintings by her great uncle, a black shawl that her mother once wore for audience with the Pope, and which her mother also used as a disguise to escape from Czechoslovakia herself with her infant son.  We heard about her cousins playing the red capes of the Cardinal who later became that Pope, Pius the 12th; about how the events of history swirl around us, and only later are we able to see the majesty, horror, mystery, and meaning. She passed around pictures of her family home, her grandparents, the way life was in the interwar period, the passport of her father, with a stamp in it from the Nazis from 1934, and the book of Impressionist paintings from her great Uncle, who had painted with Monet.      

At the end of the day, when it was time to leave, Zosha was about to walk across the treacherous icy driveway. Greyson saw his opportunity to be a gentleman, to extend his arm and escort her to her safely to her car, which he did. He came back into the big room, bounding with delight and inarticulate glee. “I just did that! I just put my arm out and walked her across the ice! It was like, it was like I was a god!”
     He was ebullient and aloft. He’d reached out. He’d thought about “where he wanted to be,” and had met the moment, however fleeting, with right action. When I think of what our school is, what a school can be, I think I would like to believe it is just that moment in the driveway. At the nexus of a single person’s story and the history of mankind, of fragility and strength, of loving-kindness and self-awareness, of a little danger and a lot of safety, and one person holding his arm out for another to hold onto.

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