In the morning there was more light in the room, with the sun creeping higher, even though it remained six degrees.
The kids sat quietly, ringed around the table.
“I’m looking at you, and it looks like you didn’t evolve over the break,” I said.
“What do you mean,” said Colt.
“You look the same. None of you have changed for the better. You didn’t become wise or enlightened or geniuses.”
“It was only a week,” someone said.
“It was 240 hours! Think of all the changes and transformations you could have made. That’s enough time to change your heart, become loving, tender, and true!!”
“I evolved,” said Jacques.
“Jacques!” I shouted. I wanted to remind him of the promise he’d made the day of Valentine’s Day. He had brought a giant plastic heart full of candy his mother had given him. I had commented on how that plastic would one day be floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or be consumed into the stomach of a loggerhead sea turtle. He had then told me that that would never happen because he promised protect and keep the heart with him forever, for ten thousand years, for 300 generations. “I promise,” he said. “I will always take care of it!”
“Jacques, do you know where you left your plastic candy heart after your big promise?! Do you know where I found the sacred heart?”
“No,” he said, laughing.
“You left it on the dirty floor, under the table, broken in two parts! I picked it up and saved the broken heart!” I pointed to the shelf on the wall where I had placed his abandoned heart.
Jacques doubled over in laughter.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” I demanded.
“Well, over vacation I took care of my heart,” he said, tapping his chest.
After this wake-up conversation, I wanted to check in with them about world affairs and express something about the events unfolding in Ukraine. I told them I have been fully immersed in the story, and I told them: “Yes, it is far away, yes it is difficult and scary, but it is important to know about.”
“History is happening before our eyes,” I said. “And it relates to our own quest to understand and create some kind of Eutopia here, even in this little school in Vermont. When George Floyd was murdered two years ago, we were primed to understand why that was so significant because we had been studying Black History for the whole year. We are in the middle of something terrible, and we can see before our very eyes what is true and good, and what is horrid, destructive, and barbaric. We are talking about courage, peace, safety, and freedom here every day. And we are seeing it all in Ukraine.”
The room was still and quiet. I have been criticized for “brainwashing” my students. I have been attacked for teaching the 1619 Project. I have been accused of, “showing my ideology.” I have been critiqued for being too much focused on humanism as a source-point for my teaching. I have been criticized for a lot of things related to my teaching. Maybe I was showing my “ideology.” I prefer, “showing my identity” or “showing my heart.” I do not want to disguise my feelings or teach bland neutrality. In this case, my “ideology” was inspired by the tragedy in Ukraine, and the righteousness of the Ukrainians in the fight for survival. My ideology was to express what I feel about what I see.
“Does it relate, to us?” I asked. “Yes, it does.”
In our lit book, in the reading for our class on My Name is Asher Lev that Monday morning, Asher had drawn a picture of Stalin, who is from the sitra achra, the demonic side of evil. At the same time, Asher’s father is trying to save Jews in Ukraine. In the other class, we are reading 1984. The parallels are direct: Winston and Julia, digging down with their most desperate efforts to live and create the Golden Country. They are willing to die for it, to give everything, to throw themselves against the onslaught. And these people in Ukraine, what are they willing to live and die for? The flag of Ukraine is symbolic of the blue sky and the golden fields of wheat. That is their Golden Country. As the Ukrainians go, so go Winston and Julia, working to create and defend their world, to drive out lies and dishonesty and find truth and beauty, to retain themselves and “stay human.” By staying human, even if just for a moment, they make of their lives nobility and beauty, a secret cell of their own, their own inviolable sacred heart. Beauty as in paperweight with red coral encased in the watery glass. Beauty in an old song, barely remembered beauty in the touch of a hand, or the smell of real coffee, or the sound of the washerwoman pegging diapers and turning a drivel pop song into something eternal and all-conquering and untouchable.
“The war is scary, but we need to understand it,” I said, thinking of Alfred North Whitehead. ”In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place.”
“We are not an island, we are a part of the world. And what we are doing here matters in the world.”
During the vacation, I had become scared about what was happening and had written Deborah Lubar, the grandmother of NBS alum Geeta Lust, who knows a thing or two about Soviet totalitarianism.
I told her I was ready to hand over the keys of the school to some young whippers-napper and head to Poland with Rose, where we would join up with international resistance fighters and enter into the western provinces of Ukraine and engage the fight.
Deborah responded forcefully and lovingly in her note back to me.
But here’s where you personally do belong to the Resistance – one better than, God forbid, your getting to Poland and from there into Ukraine with your ankle knife and your Uzi – oh please don’t. Among other things, like our losing you, your loud cussing at every mishap, including stubbing your toe in some underground tunnel that would give your whole unit away and get them all instantly killed. You know that, right? Your Resistance is “living by poetry.” Our minds are dying, flattening out, unleavened, shriveling, drying up. Don’t hand the school over to a whippersnapper. Unless you decide to travel around the country instead, teaching poetry as you do, as a way of being alive and watering our drought-ish minds and despairing hearts. You could do that. Without the Uzi. Only dust-bowl minds accept/promote/sustain totalitarian horrors.
Because, poetry is what has sustained Ukraine and Russia for a half dozen centuries, and it’s what the world needs now. There is a book on our shelves, Poetry Like Bread, a collection of poems by poets engaged with world events, poets who wrote to save the world, to remind us of what is worth saving.
I told the kids about that book. “This is what we are here to do in this school— to practice making the world as it should be—safe, free, open, loving, truth-seeking, meaning-making, and alive.”
One of the kids mentioned that it is hard to know what is happening because one news source will say one set of facts or numbers, and another will report a different set of facts and numbers. Moreover, the news changes hourly. I suggested to them a couple of credible sources, and said that it is important to not just read the headlines on “Apple News,” but to dig a little deeper. Digging deeper is what scholars and historians do.
As we talked, it was evident that many of the kids had been following the events, and knew a lot about it. The resistance appeared to them, as it is to the whole world, inspiring. We are alive as history is happening. It is frightening, confusing, shocking. The firmament seems to shake beneath us. And while there is no shortage of terrible and tragic events happening in more remote locales of the world, this one now demands our attention, as George Floyd’s death did, because we are all bound up in it. And yet, I am mindful that these are children, still living lives of children, talking about candy, arguing about skis, drawing cartoons of “Cow people” on the whiteboard, playing hide-and-seek at lunch.
The conversation shifted. Axel’s dog Moos had died over the vacation. Axel described the circumstances, and then shifted to what appeared to be more of a mystery dilemma. “I guess I have been kind of stoic–I mean, I usually cry about a lot of things, but I didn’t really cry about this yet. And I’m not sure what to say when someone says, “I’m sorry about Moos.”
There was a round of comments and thoughts.
“We say ‘sorry’ because we want the other person to know we feel what they feel. We don’t want to ignore it or be indifferent.”
“It lets us feel our own feelings again. If your dog dies, and I feel it, I feel it because I know what it’s like to lose something precious and once-living.”
“An animal becomes a part of your life. And you will feel it in different ways at different times.”
Animals dying, grandparents dying, the past dying, old times changing into new times, old relationships with parents evolving into new relationships with parents—this comprises some of the great work that the kids here are processing and experiencing.
Oscar mentioned that he had had social success at Arapahoe Basin, remembering his great loneliness at the top of the mountain when he was in seventh grade, and his increased ability to reach out to others at the top of the mountain this time.
Oscar had prefaced his comment by saying, “This isn’t really important to what we are talking about,” to which I said, “It’s all-important to talk about. There is no right-being, or legitimate/illegitimate experience…This is who we are.”
Graeham read the poem, still prepared since we had not had school the Friday before break…
by Jericho Brown
The water is one thing, and one thing for miles.
The water is one thing, making this bridge
Built over the water another. Walk it
Early, walk it back when the day goes dim, everyone
Rising just to find a way toward rest again.
We work, start on one side of the day
Like a planet’s only sun, our eyes straight
Until the flame sinks. The flame sinks. Thank God
I’m different. I’ve figured and counted. I’m not crossing
To cross back. I’m set
On something vast. It reaches
Long as the sea. I’m more than a conqueror, bigger
Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.
In the segue between classes, I had sentences resonating in my mind: “I’m set on something vast.” “I am more than a conqueror.” “Your resistance is living by poetry.” And the words of John Donne, which have been stuck in me since I was 19, floated to the top.. “No Man Is an Island.”
In lit class, we continued the discussion linking 1984 to ourselves and current events in Ukraine. I read part of Ezra’s last lit response, which included his reaction to the moment when Julia passes the note to Winston, saying “I love you,” It’s a magnificent moment, a blow against a faceless, brutal totalitarian system. Ezra’s question was: are we doing that here, at NBS. For instance, we do things that hurt each other constantly–chipping away at ourselves, teasing each other, saying this just to get a reaction, reflexive arguing, spreading stories and gossip, without ever taking a risk to talk about what is important to us, without slowing down to try to say what matters and listen to what matters.
Are we helping each other to be free to feel and experience our lives here? Ezra asked the question of us. I presume, then, that he is questioning himself. He asked, are we diminishing the chances that we can be ourselves fully here, even in regard to something as tender as a crush. If we tease each other about “who we like” it eventually can have the chilling effect of causing us to hide our feelings. This can be with any rare or special thought. It turns affections and self-revelation into commodities to be sold and traded and kicked around in the social marketplace.I told them that the feeling of a crush or falling in love is special and raw and exciting. So why would any of them jab at that good thing by spreading it around and making it small?
Whereas Winston and Julia, they gave themselves wholly to the other. They risked it all. And that gave them rare and special freedom. And if they don’t make it to the end, if they are forced into hiding, they will have at least done that knowing love, having known the beauty of the bluebells and songbirds.
Jacques asked me if it was okay if he had rewritten some scenes and added new scenes for the play. He had taken liberties, he said, coming up with a way to turn the play towards a conflict that we can resolve at the end. He was worried that he had done too much. What if people don’t like the lines I wrote for them?
“They can change their lines,” I said.
“Everyone has responsibility. You are helping move it forward. They can help move it forward, too.”
But his questions revealed the same issue: If I care about something and put my heart into it, what happens if it gets kicked down.
I got an email from the Ripton Fire Chief, Chris Pike, who’s also Eli’s dad. He’d looked at footage of the security camera at the firehouse and had seen a recording of what appeared to be an NBSer marking out in large letters in the snow “Hi” and “Good—” which we at first thought might be the word “poop” but which was in fact unfinished “good morning,” Some of the kids, with active imaginations, thought the figure making the messages looked like a Ukrainian solider, but others recognized it to be Seely.
I told Lila B. to help organize all the musicians and musical performances for the play. Jacques wanted to help. Ezra offered his “new beats” he’s been making on an Apple Music app. I gave Ezra a book about Woodstock, since he’s doing a project on it. I warned him that I knew everything about Woodstock and so he will not be able to BS or leave anything out. Opera is doing a project on Drop City and the Farm. We looked for information and photos on the internet: I helped her see how to collect info to answer basic questions, and how to find images to show what she may be talking about. She said her parents were helping her do research and started getting interested in the communes–I asked Oprea if she was interested in joining a commune with her parents and Hartley, and she demurred, then said, “No, not if it is far away from NBS!”
In all-Tal we only had a short time to do a hundred things. Read a story? Work on the play? Talk about the ski trip? Hear a project? Talk about beauty? I handed back stories I had read over vacation. I read a passage from Jacques’, in which he talked about how excited he was for the play back in seventh grade. But, in seventh grade, he was caught up in seventh grade turmoil. “I didn’t even know who I was. How could I come up with a whole new character?” I read an excerpt from Oprea’s story, in which she was questioning who she wanted to be, curled in a ball in the snow, crying, because she had fought over a dumb thing with her brother.
Why did I do that? I asked myself. That’s not me. That’s when I thought, then who am I? Really? Not what I tell myself I am.Who am I? I’ve been so busy trying not to be forgotten, that I’ve forgotten myself. The last thought made me cry harder. I clutched the smooth wood stick that had been the reason my brother and I were fighting. I fought over a stupid stick. Who am I? My tears started freezing on my cheeks. I looked up at the full moon, the only light I had. Even that light is just reflected from the sun. It’s not the moon. Who am I? I curled up tighter. I wanted someone to come. But I had said I wanted to be left alone before I stormed out of the house. No one is coming. I’m alone. ALONE. Who am I?
Who am I? The essential question.
And then I read a passage from Campbell’s story, about trying to become more than someone who just argues about “Star Wars.” She stands up to a boy who, after talking about his weekend hunting, claims that the Bible condemns LGBTQIA+ people because they are not fully devoted to God.
I got up quickly because I was done with this. With the dark rooms, with the dead deer who once was free, with myself and how I felt, with emotion, which at the moment was angry, so angry, but that would only carry me as far as the day. Because I knew that I would cry again at night, and Fiona would bring me a book by a gay Christian author, and say some of her bottled up words that everyone praises so much, hoping it would make me feel better, but would only make me feel annoyed at her. Because I had “screamed” like Fiona says she wants to, and yet it still wasn’t good enough.
Of course, it is good enough. I can see it, any of us can see it. This is what it looks like when the kids tap into the scream inside them, the higher self trying to emerge. Asher Lev’s teacher tells him that for the artist, “Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.” All of the kids are trying, each in their fumbling, mystifying ways, to find, possess, and free that self.
And finally, for the last twenty minutes, we watched a few short clips of the recent history of Ukraine; phone footage from Kyiv and Kharkiv, and a short bit on the resistance and what it means.
I had spent my day at a special island, with maddening, hilarious, evolving, transforming, sometimes abjectly moronic, sometimes-brilliant children, the special soldiers of the future. When I got home, I went to find Donne’s words and remind myself to resist by living by poetry:
No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.