Out Beyond Wrongdoing and Rightdoing

We have been reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. The story does not have much conventional drama—no cliff-hangers, violence, vampires, or orcs. However it does contain the drama of how human beings evolve from one state to the next.

It is this drama that we teachers live for, those moments where a child grows before our eyes. I am not talking about the proverbial “a-ha moment,” though that happens and it is good. I don’t simply mean those moments when, as exciting as they are, when suddenly students understand that breakfast means “to break the fast,” or see the symbolism behind the snake in “Don’t Tread on Me,” or comprehend why water expands, or are able finally, mercifully, to balance an equation.

We are talking about something much deeper, more far-reaching. We are talking about the moments when the vision of reality changes. When a student conceives of and asks a question and new vistas open up. We are talking about moments when a twelve-to-fourteen year-olds find transcendence, or are disabused of their illusions, or find a way to direct their lives in accordance with their ideals, or have their hearts broken and then mended.

Siddhartha stands for all of us who must shed our skins and become new again. He is all of us who go deeply into a new path or identity or relationship, only to find limits or stagnation. He is all of us who, having found that ostensible wall, seek further and believe there is another beyond, an ultimate reality still to be discovered. He stands for the part of us that lives beyond all “laws and preaching,” as Whitman writes, where the greater something awaits.

And as we see old orders of decorum and unity disintegrate around us, we may discover that we need to create our own structures, our own sacred realms, independent of what common culture offers. Rumi has some well-known verses (translated by Coleman Barks), about the human need to find such sacred realms.

              Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
              there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

              When the soul lies down in that grass,
              the world is too full to talk about.
              Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
              doesn’t make any sense

I find that most of what I read about beyond the woods of the North Branch School lately does not make any sense. When I look off  the mountain I see currents of anger, division, and rage. I hear strident voices shouting about wrongdoing and rightdoing. So much of what passes for government, leadership, cultural norms, or policy seems to be tainted by money, self-interest, and corruption. So I turn to the sense that my students make. If I can bend my ear just right, I hear them speaking words that the world should hear. They can be a river that offers secrets. I hear them talking about purity, selflessness, and love. I see them becoming forms worthy of being memorialized in stone or bronze.

When we were in Boston, we walked past Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ relief sculpture of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment to see action for the Union in the Civil War. Originally, though, Shaw had been unsure about leading such a regiment, dubious about their fighting capability. Over time, however, he came to love his men. When his men boycotted their pay, which was less than white soldiers, he boycotted with them and refused his own pay. In battle would not allow his soldiers to violate the rules of war, even when ordered to do so by higher-ranking officers. He treated his men with dignity, though they were considered an “unlawful” unit by the enemy, and sometimes as such even by fellow soldiers. He insisted on decorum, high standards, even treatment.  He lead them fearlessly. He learned to see his men as men. After Shaw was killed with his unit in a failed assault on Fort Wagner, the Confederate army refused to turn over his body and ordered it stripped, robbed, and dumped into an unmarked trench with the regulars as a show of contempt for his having lead black soldiers. In a letter to the regimental surgeon, Lincoln Stone, his father, Frank Shaw, wrote:

         We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his
         brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in
         which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better
         company – what a body-guard he has!    

Shaw was a man worthy of being memorialized in bronze. His heart, his actions, his willingness to find a cause and sacrifice for it made it so.  He lived on that high plane of the gods, where he gave himself over to something quite larger than himself—in this case a belief in the equality of all human beings. To get to that high plane he had to reflect, think, suffer, change course, and make decisions about how to conduct his life. He lived through his own reincarnations—from birth, to child of privilege, to student, to dutiful soldier, to leader, to martyr.

In this sense he lived as Siddhartha did, steadily evolving from the relatively contained generic place of high-born advantage to the timeless, boundless realm of the noble and heroic. And so while reading Siddhartha, I have thought of my students in such a light, relishing the moments when they have seemed to be moving from one incarnation to another, when they break from limits to limitlessness, from tentative stoicism to impassioned speech, from cold, stone-heartedness to empathic lovers of the world and each other.

In order to understand Siddhartha, we tried to live like him. We spent a week purposely living in a state of self-denial and deprivation. Each student elected to eschew some comfort or luxury. At home they slept on their floors, took cold showers, ate cold food, slept with no pillow. They wore the same set of clothes all week; chose to forgo washing hair, using make-up, or ornamenting themselves; wore logo-less clothes, or taped over clothing brand-names which, they discovered, labeled them from head to toe. They made their families turn off the lights and use candles. They tried going meatless or vegan. They  used only pencils, scrawled their school work on birch bark, left their computers at home, skipped all forms of social media. At school we unplugged the printer, microwave, and the lights. In the morning and afternoon we held mediation walks in the labyrinth, and several of the students walked barefoot on the cold, wet ground; one of them wore her “Samana sandals” she’d fashioned out of cardboard. We meditated in a dark room with a single candle until, by staring, the room went black and the only radiance emanated from that tiny, flickering flame.

By these means over five days we tried to coerce inner evolution. By choosing to endure these self-imposed rules, some of them uncomfortable, and by altering ingrained habits, we tried to change our consciousness. It wasn’t heroic by any means, and certainly we did not ascend to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “high plane of dignity and discipline,” or “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”  But we did, however, move ourselves together to a new understanding of what we are, and what our minds and bodies are capable of, not just in the internal, mental landscape, but in physical, three-dimensional being. Our learning, for those few days, dwelled at the point where physical bodies and senses intersected with the the potential forms of growing souls.

Robert Hayden’s great sonnet “Frederick Douglass” speaks about the need for idea to become action, the way the virtues memorialized in stone can be given flesh and life by the way we conduct our lives.

      When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
      and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
      usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
      when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
      reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
      than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
      this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
      beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
      where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
      this man, superb in love and logic, this man
      shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
      not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
      but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
      fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing. 
 

Yes, we are striving to be sculpturally and three-dimensionally significant. And I devoutly hope that that my students learn how to live lives that one day will be remembered. But first they must learn to see, and see each other, and then, at last, see themselves. To that end the kids write about their lives and each other constantly. They bring each other to life and into the room by means of character sketches, the primary aim of which is to penetrate to the invisible place beneath the physical surface. What lives under the face, the hair, the clothes, the easy smile, the annoying behavior. What powers are expressed in a single gesture, in the casual comment, in the way one leans over one’s drawing?  What great truths emerge from a close consideration of a person’s small actions over time? How is this friend, mother, sibling, or teacher a beautiful, needful, breathing figure of value? With all their expanding powers of observation and expression, their goal is simple: to the show cosmically significant truth of one another. To do it they must use the two great tools of the artist: logic, in order to show concrete reality; and love, to make it come alive.

Isa was writing her sketch on Henry Swan, a boy she has only known for three months. When she sent him what she had written, he was launched into a state of ecstatic, electrified awareness. He wrote me one night, clearly shaken. “It’s so good it’s not even funny. it made me laugh and cry and laugh again. this is some seriously holy business.”

By her artistic hand Isa had opened him up so he could see himself. She made a word picture of him that put him into the world in a way he’d never felt. Holy business! I wonder how many school principals or superintendents have ever called what happens in school a “holy business.”

So often the business of the world seems unholy. We exist mostly in the mundane, and often in the profane–obsessed as we are with menial or meaningless tasks and desires, piddling around with unworthy interests, selling little bits of our souls to the first bidder, investing in empty gestures and unneeded objects. But then there are those times when we do ascend, little moments that add up. Like when Maddy writes about Lena, because she wants Lena to be seen, and wants to know what is behind Lena’s tears and her laughter. When Lena volunteers to sing, a capella and in front of all her peers, “The Tree of Life” for Sydney’s project, even though she is not fully confident in how the melody  should sound. Or when Ben tells the class that he doesn’t like people making fun of him when allows a goal at lunch on the field, because, dammit, he volunteered to be our goalkeeper, and he may not be the best, but he’s trying. Or when Isa notices that Una’s lips look like an almost W. Or when Geeta says she will bring in a menorah to join our meditation bowl and Tree of Life, giving balance to the universe. Or when a group of boys dash into the woods at lunch to cut down a small conifer to erect in the big-room to be our non-denominational tree of life, in honor of pagan practice and Syd’s project. Or when Henry Swan realizes that empathy is more powerful than winning. Or when Henry Black writes of himself that inside his silences and his loudness is a small boy who misses his parents and just wants to be at home, in the embrace of his mother, with touch of his father’s flannel, and the musty smell of his barn.

Or maybe it happens when Joe speaks in meeting, about his old friend told who him his haircut looked “gay,” and then told Joe to “go fuck himself” after Joe told him that saying “gay” is not cool.

In a state of disbelief, I ask the class, “What do you say to that?” Celeste answers in less than a second and with absolute conviction: “You say that that person is not a very good friend.” Such moments propel all of them into an understanding of what being human is, and how life calls upon them to respond, together, with each other, and for each other.

This is how they move toward making of their lives something usable and good. They strive to see and seek the good in each other and everywhere. They make a school where no one is lonely, hunted, or alien. They try to understand, with empathy and insight, those who transgress the norms of communal or civic life. They willingly offer up their hearts, their wisdom, and their values as gifts.  In these moments Rumi is right—”even the phrase each other/ doesn’t make sense.” They live with full and evolving hearts, without walls, open to pain and joy. Then and only then does the field of existence become a perpetual unfolding.

 

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Searching for Atman in Boston

We were starting Siddhartha, a book ostensibly remote from the concerns of 21st century adolescents. What should they care about the Brahmin’s son, a prince among Brahmins? Morning ablutions? The Rig-Vedas? Atman? Meditation under the banyan tree?

In truth, nothing could be more about them. The book asks: Which path will I take? How do I come by experience? What do I know if I only know what others teach me? When comes the time that I embark on my own quest, my own path, despite all warnings? How will I know the truth without making of my life a great experiment, and willingly opening myself to all that life can bring?

This was the iron rail I hoped to put us on on Monday morning, and I was all fired up.

But a windstorm, the trailing arm of an Atlantic hurricane, left Ripton, and much of Vermont, powerless on Sunday night. At seven-thirty Monday morning there were twelve trees down across the Lincoln Road on the way up to school. We were certain there could be no school. Pam was in Brandon, attending to her new-born granddaughter in the dark, and Tal and Rose were trying to get around the power pole lying in their driveway. Today there would be no iron rail leading to the ultimate reality.

We headed downtown to make calls to ensure that everyone knew school was off, then back up to school to gather some belongings. The road had been cleared moments before.  We turned in to the school driveway to see numerous cars and, upon entering the school, found all the kids seated around the table in the dark room, ready for school, waiting for us to arrive.

They had not gotten the message, and the storm had not frightened them. I stared into the gloom, thinking ruefully about the day that could have been, at home reading papers by candle-light, knowing now it was time to teach.

Something about them sitting there inspired me. They were like little birds, ready to learn as best they could. We made a few adjustments: there would be a candle on the table, but no one was allowed to play with the wax (experience having taught that there is nothing more magnificently enticing to young adolescents than playing with melted candle wax). No one was allowed in the basement, as this was the day before Hallowe’en. Boys could go into the woods to pee. The ninth graders were charged with getting buckets of water from the vernal pond to refill toilets. And the doors needed to stay shut at all times to preserve what heat we had.

And with that, school began. No internet, phones, lights, microwave, or running water, in violation of the entirety of Vermont state fire-code, I am sure. We had school just as school might have been in 1910.

Melville writes in Moby Dick: “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

One of the most difficult arts of teaching is keeping the school and the kids aimed towards our fixed purpose—keeping momentum and a sense of excitement week after week. Keeping everyone unified and moving forward together, pursuing the whale, and the grail. When weather, sickness, or holidays intervene, all that we’ve built can seem to collapse. The wind goes out of the sails. On the years when Hallowe’en falls midweek, all seems obstacle, all seems a torrent of un-learning and distraction, all seems angles to the iron way. Skittles become infinitely more important than the Pythagorean theorem or the theme of the hero’s journey in Siddhartha. A good costume becomes the new quest, a sack of candy the grail chalice incarnate.

We desperately tried to keep the school on iron rails through the dark, through the rifled hearts of the mountains. We bundled up in our coats. Una and Isa came bounding into the science room at lunch with thyme and sage from the garden and asked if they could burn the leaves in the dark basement to “conjure spirits.” I said “No” to the basement but “Yes” to the conjuring of spirits. At lunch time, while Phoebe wandered about the soccer field cowled in Lena’s owl fleece blanket, Una and Isa kneeled in the center of the labyrinth drawing out spirits from the woods.  Henry Black repeatedly filled up water bottles and volunteered to send out homework messages to his peers from home each night, since I couldn’t. When the toilet got clogged, Oscar brandished the plunger and went to work without complaint.

On Tuesday they came to school dressed in costume: Una was Medusa, with golden snakes woven into her hair. Isa was a witch. Lena was a pumpkin. Henry W. was Robin Hood in camouflage tights. Sasha was Indiana Jones. Iris and Vivian were boys. Joe and Nate were girls. Jack was Hell’s best dad, carrying his Devil spawn, Colby, in a Baby Bjorn. Phoebe, Henry B. and Ethan were all Swiss-Austrian yodelers and goat-farmers. Henry S. was a borg, with gears and capacitors glued to his cheeks. Oscar’s hair was a squirrel’s nest, complete with four stuffed varmints and fresh straw.

Events seemed fated to swerve us from our path. At times it was difficult to take them seriously. Try teaching literature to a child who holds his Siddhartha book and looks across the table with fake blood running out of his eyes. Try pressing them close to hear Siddhartha’s searching voice when they have four golden snakes bouncing in their tangled hair. Jack stared at me with satanic eyes, like a raccoon from hell. Paul could not help getting into a fierce, all-consuming debate with Henry about the important distinction a between borg and cyborg. Pillowcases of candy sat on the big room table all day. And I was thinking about what was coming next week—our class trip on the following Monday.

Where are we going? I asked them, as we sat in the dark gloom, with our single candle guttering out on top of a pile of books.

To Boston, they said. 

But what are going to do there? See? Learn?

We’re going to a museum?

Yes. We’re going to see Gauguin’s great masterwork.  LEt’s take a look at this painting again.

I pulled out the big Gauguin in Tahiti catalogue again and opened the centerfold to  “Where do we come from? What are We? We are we going?” We’d started the year looking at that painting.  On the first day of school I had asked them in French: D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Nous allons-nous? I’d asked them because I wanted them to take the largest view possible, to consider that their lives, as wide open as the world, lay before them. We’d focused on the first question: Where do you come from? I wanted them to to embrace that question while the answers were still close.

Now we were going to see the Gauguin’s painting up close at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Now we were moving, going, doing, becoming. I told them a little about how Gauguin came to paint it, how he’d become disgusted with modern, industrialized life, and how he sought to recover a kind of lost human purity. I showed them the figures and how the painting reads from right to left, the human story compacted onto a stretch of rough burlap. I told them their responsibility in the museum was to stand in front of the painting and imagine themselves into it. To find a character in the painting whose thoughts and feelings they could imagine. To see if they could read a story there. I told them they had to come away from the painting knowing something deep about it and they would remember that far in the future.

“Where are we going?” I asked. “Write your answer. Answer any of the questions. In the beginning of the year, I asked you, Where are you from? You’ve been in school for nearly sixty days. Try answering the question again. But this time you can try answering the next question:  Where are we going?”

They set to writing as much as they could in a short amount of time. All year I have been pressuring them to write, to be ready to go into their thoughts without fear, procrastination, or rigidity. So when I said, “Go,” they did, and this time, like most times, they could not stop. And if they did, I only had to read a few sentences of someone’s attempt, and that started them again, because hearing a peer’s written words is implicit sanction to write one’s own. So they plunged into the abyss.

We are going to the end, Creed wrote. We are going to Ragnorak. We are going to not be found. We are going to mother nature’s wrath. We are going to join the Samanas. We are going to Boston. We are going to grow up. We are going to change. We are going to become ancestors. We are going to follow the cycle of life and death. We are going to change the world. We are going to not count. We are going to die young. We are going to be hot to trot. We are going to be siblings, and good ones at that. We are going to die peacefully. We are going to move. We are going to run. We are going to stand strong. We are going to be us. We are going to be history.

Phoebe kept writing hers until class ended. When it was time to go, she approached me in a state of excitement.

“Tal. I have over a hundred things on my list!” That night she emailed it to me.

We are going to Boston, to our graves, to heaven. We are going to grow up, become our own people, to carry on, to find the ultimate reality, burn an eternal flame. We are going to museums, to live on in hard times, to be remembered for who we are, to try things we thought we’d never try. We are going to face our fears, milk each opportunity, find a happy medium, make each other happy, have our hearts broken. We are going to learn love, become one body, use baby crayons and adult crayons, read banned books, hold the door open for others. We are going to make metaphors that make no sense, tuck animals into bed, hope someone finds us. We are going to ignore expiration dates, to amaze the public with our temporary sanity, throw pearls into the ocean, lose ourselves, run through thorns,  be afraid, and to hold old people’s hands.

In the museum. the docent at the MFA announced that the students had to stay with us, the chaperones, at all times. I asked her where the Gauguin painting was. She told us and then she said, “Enjoy your visit.”

As soon as she was gone, I addressed the kids, who were huddled in a corner on the marble floors. “Okay, we’re gonna let you loose. Stay with a peer, but you’re free to go anywhere. Ther are mummies and Egyptian artifacts. There are Roman statues, old furniture, Native American rooms, and an exhibit of Mark Rothko. Try to go into the Rothko. They say that people cry in front of his paintings more than any other in the world. And go to the Gauguin. Remember, it reads from right to left. It tells a story. Try to figure out the story and try to enter into a painting and leave this world for that one. You’re free to go anywhere. Be civilized, be interested. Meet back here in two hours.”

They nodded, raring to go, snatching maps of the museum out of my hand.

For the next two hours we saw them only periodically. They did not stay with us. They disappeared into the warren of rooms stretching back through time. Henry B. grabbed me to show me a sculpture of hundreds of colored threads suspended over our heads, casting mist-like shadows on the walls. “Where is the Gauguin room?” he asked. Rose and I gazed at the great white Zen paintings of Agnes Martin. In the Gauguin room Ben told me what he had discovered about Gauguin’s painting, that it began with an infant in the right corner and ended with an old woman in shadow in the left corner. At the center was a tall young man, reaching for an apple at the top edge of the painting, his muscular legs glowing with warm, goldern light.

“That’s like Siddhartha, reaching for knowledge,” Ben said. “And look over there, that’s Van Gogh.”  It was “Les Peiroulets Ravine,” a swirling, animated landscape with two tiny figures making their way along a path.

Iris and Geeta were looking at Renoir’s “Danse a Bougival.” Geeta told me she stood behind a tour group of elderly ladies and had gotten inside information on the identity of the girl in the painting.

“The girl was someone Renoir knew!” she exclaimed. “And the man with the straw hat is a country gentleman.”

Behind us, in a glass vitrine, was a bronze Degas dancer, her leg pointed delicately from her antique lace skirt. We sat on the cushioned bench in the middle of the gallery, looking into those magnificent windows.

Sam told me about being in the Rothko room. “Tal, Tal,” he said, “I saw a woman crying in front of one of the Rothko paintings, the big black ones.”

Not ten yards from those towering doorways into the abyss was a tiny Rembrandt painting on a panel of an artist, sitting in the shadows of a low-ceilinged room gazing at a canvas before him. Due to the perspective of the painting the back of the canvas is facing us—it is black and immense in comparison to the shadowed artist behind it. I read that this painting was a great influence on Rothko, as it presented the drama of the moment when the artist faces existential blankness, the nothing that proceeds creation. And this tiny painting had been a seed for Rothko’s magnificent hovering, incandescent planes.

Behind us Geeta and Maddy sat together in the dark room on bench, gazing at massive chrome sculpture, a silver boulder the size of an elephant. It could have been a meteor from another galaxy. Geeta said she sat there for twenty minutes, thinking about many things. Geeta was on her way to becoming her own Siddhartha, in the grove, deep in thought.

Paul walked through glass door not knowing where he was going and entered a room which was filled with Roman statues. He told is how he got swept away up by the large marble of Juno. ”I just walked into room, not knowing what I would see, and there was this huge thing, just there.”

At the end of our time feet were aching. But Henry Swan, Creed, and Jack were still alive and on fire. “Did you see the Picassos and the Jackson Pollock!?”  they shouted as they bounded towards us up a wide staircase. They were beside themselves with excitement. “You have to see them, you have to see them!”

“Okay,” we said. And we followed them, these eighth grade boys who’d managed to  memorize the layout of all three floors of the museum in two hours. It was hard to keep up with them, but they were, as Whitman might have described them, afoot with their vision. We bounded into the room where Pollocks and Picassos were juxtaposed side-by-side to highlight their amazing relations and affinities in color, palette, form, and composition. The boys urged us into the next room filled with paintings by Charles Sheeler, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent.

“And look at this one,” Jack said. “I really love this.” It was a synthetic cubist painting by Stuart Davis, a favorite painter of mine, and Jack was hyper-charged. “It was in the middle of the room so I figured it must be important. I looked at it for over a half hour, practically forever. I was there so long I kind of lost everyone.”

He’d found a painting that spoke to him. A vision of the New York streets, the jazz of Harlem, echoes of afro-tribal rhythms rendered in cubist vocabulary. He didn’t have to know any of this to be taken by the painting.

When we left the museum they were giddy. The sky was dark and a windy mist blew at us we made our way back to Chinatown. The kids walked together in a long, constantly reforming string, little pods of them touching shoulders, their heads inclined or shouting ahead. They moved like a giant amoeba, all adolescent protoplasm, life energy, laughter, whispering, calling out. Our boundaries shifted and changed but did not disintegrate. We walked and we held together.

That night we screened a movie. I had meant to bring “The Incredibles,” but I forgot it. A man at the front desk of the hostel handed me “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

“Will that be okay?” he asked.

“Okay? It’s the most perfect.”

The conceit of the movie is, of course, that there is life in the world beyond the confining walls of schools and society’s expectations, and sometimes you have slip through the cracks to go after it. The movie contrasts the strictures of rote learning, droning teachers, and the limits of institutional learning against Ferris’ zestful determination to break out and courageously create his own magical experience. He is Siddhartha, circa 1982, in suburban Chicago, setting out on a quest.  There is a scene in the movie where Ferris, Sloane and Cameron enter the Art Institute of Chicago. A long shot shows a line of small school children, perhaps in first grade, entering the museum, all linked, holding hands in an extended string, a strand of prelapsarian DNA slithering through the gallery. In the middle of the string of children Sloane, Ferris, and Cameron are enjoined, now first-graders in their big-kid bodies, passing by a background of the great works of civilization.

The film follows with shot after shot of the masterworks in the AIC. A Picasso nude. Stained-glass by Chagall in radiant azure. Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath.” Rodin’s standing “Balzac,” and a curvaceous reclining  figure by Henry Moore.  Then we see Cameron from behind, looking at Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” His eyes zero in on the small girl in a white dress with her mother at the center of the painting. The camera zooms in, shot by shot, until the images dissolves into a pointillist abstraction. We see Cameron losing himself in the painting in order to find himself. Here art does the magic which makes us see.  Structure disintegrates, order dissolves. Cameron enters into the painting, it takes a hold of him, and he lets it take hold, and he is changed. He is a child again, innocent and uncorrupted, if only for a day, before time sweeps him into the rat race and adulthood, before he crosses the threshold forever.

In these days it is often hard for me to forget what is happening out in the Big Beyond far from our little school on the mountain. I read about the mass famine descending on Yemen because rebels are starving the nation into submission. In a crossroads church in Texans a man has, only days before, shot 25 worshippers with a AR-15, and I discover, from a three minute search on the internet, that I can get my own AR-15 for $800 and no back-ground check, if I meet a guy in the TJ Maxx parking lot in Essex Junction. And if I pony up another $200 I can put a bump-stock on it and make it fully automatic. World leaders, with not a wit of understanding about the lives we all struggle through, are playing at war, like a lot of insecure, lost bullies in the halls of a middle school, threatening the planet’s existence. Damascus, where Rumi spoke his ecstatic reveries, is in ruin, and blood actually runs in the streets. Glaciers the size of Delaware are calving into the oceans, and the warm mist that’s been blowing in our faces all day in the streets of Boston is most surely a localized micro-climate which is the result of warmer and expanding seas. We know from our studies that warmer water expands. We know that the average global temperature is on a trajectory to rise well above 2 degrees celsius in the next 70 years.  The facts are inescapable and haunting. And our students are learning them. And those facts sink in, and then our students forget them, because after all, our students are still children, who are holding hands in a museum, talking about art and life.

After the trip I wrote to the parents to tell them that the trip had been successful. I told them that we had walked through the dirty puddles of Boston, that we had eaten Chinese hot pot, that we had experienced the electricity exhibit in the science museum, and that we had sat in a museum of art and seen the beautiful things humankind has made. The things worth preserving, the human essence which sometimes, these days, seems heartbreakingly close to dissolution.

I look into the window on the world and sometimes I see very little love and tenderness. No one, it seems, cares for what is most important. And then I look at the students in our school. They have days where they speak to each and every one of their classmates, and when they do that they are making strands of love, a net that holds them. I must remember two students sitting shoulder to shoulder on a bench gazing at a chrome mass that speaks to them. They listen for what it might tell. It’s a cipher, a secret message about the ultimate reality, an analogue for the soul, a doorway into the eternal. The good world seems sometimes to be such a lonely heart, beating still, yes, but in need of being held lest it be forgotten forever. So we lift the veil, there it is, and it is within our reach.

We want for our students and our children to know the beauty of the world, to believe in it. Otherwise, what is there to live and fight for?  We want for them to feel love growing among them. We want them to be charged by invisible electrical pulses emanating from a tableau of figures in a painting by Gauguin, in Monet’s shimmering haystacks. We want them to find a place under the banyan tree where they begin to comprehend Atman. We want for them to say, as Henry Wagner did when he wrote about Friday, that he was so happy and grateful. “So that’s the end of today,” he wrote to his classmates.  “Thanks, you guys, for making the day fantastic, and I love you all.”  And I am grateful for Henry. He is speaking about the wellspring grail, the iron rail, the cup that’s right before him. It is not gold-plated, armored up, marketed, or for sale. It is soft and undying and free. It fits in his hand, this devoted love for his companions, this blossoming awareness of his existence. It’s the ultimate reality, and it fits him just right. 

Making Much of Time

When a student signs up to read the daily poem, they are then faced with the prospect of hunting for one. Most of them do not yet have a favorite poet. So they ask their parents, as Vivian did last week. Her mom directed her to Pablo Neruda. If Vivian pays much attention in the coming years to the poetry of Pablo Neruda, she will have a favorite poet and a companion for life.

On Wednesday Will, at the suggestion of his father, read Robert Herrick’s, “To the Virgins, Make Much of Time,”

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may, 
    Old time is still a-flying : 
And this same flower that smiles to-day 
    To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, 
    The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run, 
    And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first, 
    When youth and blood are warmer ; 
But being spent, the worse, and worst 
    Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time, 
    And while ye may go marry : 
For having lost but once your prime 
    You may for ever tarry.

It occurred to me that it was fairly unlikely many middle schoolers, if any at all, were reading this particular poem on this particular morning. It was 8:47 AM and most kids in America were most likely in an Advisory, or an assembly, or maybe they were headed down the halls to their first classes of the day. I suppose we were in an “assembly” as well, since we were all gathered around the big table. But there is something distinctively cozy and a little strange about our poem ritual—we do it every morning, even if the kids usually have very little idea whose poem it is they are reading, or any formal knowledge of the particular school of poetry, prosody, meter, or cultural context from which the poem arises. And if any school really were getting into the subtext of Herrick’s poem and the Elizabethan dual meaning of “dying,” it’s likely also that some school official would become highly discomfited and banish Herrick altogether. But here, whatever it is does not matter. It is the sound and feeling we are after.

More often than not, the poem speaks to us the way that provides an analogue to our collective feeling and thought. As one takes a walk and sees in nature a reflection of one’s inner thoughts, when the trees or sky seem to have written themselves into a commentary aimed at one’s heart. As though the world were listening to our troubles and answering back from another time and dimension. This is how the poem sounds sometimes when it is read to the class.

There could not have been a poem more perfectly directed at a group of students assembled in a room. All week we have been talking about how we take care of our lives here in the school. How we should take care of the blessing we have to go to a school which is warm and full of love, which is filled with children who want to learn and are active about doing it. About how we should take care of the time we have here, because it is fleeting, and it only lasts a short while, and soon these kids will be gone, and handing the school off to other children.

The graduates of the North Branch School often write back with this kind of advice: take advantage of it while you have it. It’s not always like NBS out there in the world. It’s your school, take care of it. They have walked a little further down the road and they have seen a little more, and so can look back and assess what it was they lived through and in for three years.

When the woods are filled with dying ostrich ferns and the beech leaves are burning amber orange gold, we do feel time moving. When the afternoon breeze sifts through the bare limbs on the hill above the school and leaves scatter over the soccer field, it’s easy to feel time slipping by. The students feel time moving when they read something they wrote two years before and wonder, what was I thinking? They feel it when they observe their younger siblings, who still need help getting dressed or making a bowl of cereal. They know when they think back to the first days of the school year, when doors to the class room were open and we could hear the neighbor’s rooster crowing through the woods. Our time here is fleeting, as Dylan Thomas’ voice calls across the years to remind us that the sun that is young once only.

In the beginning all the students stand together at the starting line, and much of the early year excitement revolves around their feeling of togetherness, a sense of collective adventure. No one is ahead, no one is behind. We conjure a feeling of possibility and hope and potential. The world awaits. Your mind is infinite. This year will be like no other. You can do anything you want. They hunger to feel and believe this and they urge each other on, particularly when they write and read their speeches, which are essentially manifestos of their goals and intentions, to which they respond with wild acclaim and praise.

But then life happens. They begin to run and move forward. Some surge ahead with astoundingly beautiful writing, or an exquisitely executed drawings, or facile and wise-sounding comments in class. And some students begin to question their powers. Is my mind capable of that?  How can I make that shape, or put those words together? I’ll never do it. Some are relentlessly organized; others leave a trail of crumpled, unfinished assignments, broken pencils, dirty socks, and lunch bags behind them, only marginally aware of what is due when. They lose track of their intentions and plans. Their procedures are inconsistent or incomplete. Some fall behind, or procrastinate, or are too ambitious, spending multiple hours on one project at the expense of all else. One student will be unable to peck out a couple of paragraphs about The Pearl but is plowing through Stephen Ambrose’s History of World War II. One child forgets to bring her math homework to class for three days straight but stares fixedly at her ornate, Celtic designs she’s copied into her notebook, the vines wrapping around her name on the page, an adolescent’s 21st century illuminated manuscript.

Correspondingly some students surge ahead making friends. From the outside it appears that they are the glamorous ones, the life of the party, immersed in untold numbers of meaningful, soulful friendships. Others are slower, their social abilities take more time, they are shy, or reserved, or unsure. These others look upon the plethora of burgeoning friendships and they become scared. Will I be left behind? Is everyone else having fun, always knowing what to do? Am I not worthy? valued, loved, or seen.

As the school year proceeds, the gaps between kids become more apparent. They see their distance from each other or their goals. Their aching, torturous self-consciousness arises from seeing themselves as they imagine others must see them. And that projection of how other must see them comes directly out of their own sense of their shortcomings and failures. They find themselves feeling like they don’t measure up, that they are no good, not special. Whatever cloaks they draped over their shortcomings or the difficult aspects of their lives —their survival camouflage— this begins to fray and blow off. The truths of their lives become more exposed.

This is when friction begins, when time seems to slow down, becomes a murky, obscure slog through fogged and tangled undergrowth. This is, ultimately, when “drama” ensues. “Drama” used in a derisive sense diminishes the importance of what is happening. What some call drama I say is the field on which the compulsions, desires, dreams, and ambitions of growing souls collide. Drama is what must happen. It’s part of how the kids make themselves. It is the drama of the self becoming the self.

They are loud. They interrupt. They blame each other for who ruined a class. They feel left out or left behind. One boy worries that his two best friends no longer need him. Another feels his friends only see one dimension of him and he doesn’t know how to express anything else. One girl doesn’t know how to start conversations and to even try is painfully difficult. Another is caught between the girls, who have banded together, and his friends, who are acting younger than their ages. He’s lost between the two worlds, and all he wants is for the two worlds to merge so he can feel himself folded into both. One boy stares out the window in class, wondering why it is so difficult to write down words when his head is full of so many of them.

We try to work with it. We let it come out. We talk about it. We ask them to address it. Sometimes we let them fail miserably so that they will see the consequences of their actions or inactions. We watch them stumble and collide. Two girls are mad that their class has been loud and disrespectful to a classmate while he presented his project. They are concerned and want to discuss it. While they appear altruistic, it is also true that they both have lately failed to do their school work. Both issues are discussed in class by the class. What kinds of disrespect are we talking about? Not listening, talking over others, showing off with knowledge, being dismissive. Or are we talking about being disrespectful to the process, the opportunity, the thing happening.  Coming to class unprepared is as disrespectful as interrupting. One boy confesses that he’s been rude to everyone, and that his mother is correct, he needs to use tact and, he agrees, tact is important. Another is asked: why aren’t you doing your work? The answer is authentic and true: I don’t know. Another girl wonders aloud if her classmate is mad at her.

She’s never said hi to me.

But have you said hi to her? I ask.

No, not really. And then a fleeting, rueful smile plays across her lips. ‘

Are you feeling connected to your peers, I ask one boy.

Sure, he says.

Do you feel close to everyone yet? 

No, he says.

Are you close to Ethan? I ask. 

Well, we’ve been talking this year, so it’ s better.

What do you mean, better? Didn’t you ever talk last year?

No, we never talked to each other. At all, Ethan admits. He is smiling also.

What—You’re in the same class, for a whole year, every day together, doing a hundred projects and assignments, and you never talked?

Nope.

A year of avoidance leads to a year of silence between two boys who sit across the table from each other every day. 

Now we are to the heart of it. Kids this age feel alone all the time. They feel separate from their peers, different and surely unique, and at the same time they are separating from parents. Because they are in the midst of taking their first practice flights away from their families. Because they are anticipating their first migrations. In some deep down, sub-conscious evolutionary level they are worrying that they will be left behind to be eaten by wolves while the rest of their peers go on to make happy families and great civilizations.

There begins a feeling and hunger for solitude, but sometimes it’s more than they bargained for.  They hide in their rooms on the quest for independence. They will determinedly marinate in their private solitude, but they can only stay there for mere moments. Social media beckons. Headphones on, Google Chat up, homework out, cellphones, Instagram. The need for connection beckons, and these connections can be ungainly, inept, even erode the sense of self. They may find themselves adrift, severed from thoughts and people and interactions that once sustained them. They change their hair, their clothes, their music. A rackety noise of elemental, existential fear sets in— fear of judgment, fear of being alone, fear of not being worthy, fear of a lack of direction or purpose.  Robert Frost writes: I have it in me so much nearer home/ To scare myself with my own desert places. 

I see it as part of my work, the teacher’s essential work, to have them confront these fears, to bring them into full and honest visions of themselves. We do this by talking, writing and reading about ourselves. And we do it by learning to listen. Usually they are responding to what they hear in their heads. Mostly, in the case of young adolescents, they are hearing the echoes of those manifold fears—the hissing voices that tell them they are not good, worthy, beautiful, strong, liked, or desirable.

I want them to begin to hear other sounds. The sound, for instance, of wind, or the rain on the roof of the school. Or the sound of the classroom when they are all meditating in the early morning. Or the sound of a poem, of strange words giving voice to what lives inside. I send them out to sit in the field on sunny days. We “listen” to John Cage’s  4’33” to hear what happens when we stop shouting into the void with inane cries for attention. If we practice this long enough, they begin to hear the faint voice that is their own calling out inside of them. 

On Friday morning it was cold and clear. In morning meeting we talked about the week. Isa raised her hand.

I was just thinking about how I finally feel I am in the right place. I was doing my science cards last night and I just felt that I am doing what I was meant to be doing.

Here at the school, you mean?

Yeah.

What makes you feel that?

I don’t know. I’m safe here, I guess. It feels warm and loving.

She’d somehow navigated herself to clarity, at least in the moment. Knowing that, I told the class, meant that she would take care of her time in the school, She’d take care to make it count and give all that she had to it.

Then I told them we were going to take a walking meditation up into the woods. I gave them each a plastic trash bag to sit on once we stopped.

I’m not a Buddhist monk, I told them. But once a Buddhist monk lead our school on a silent walking meditation in sub-zero temperatures. He was wearing his brown robe and a North Face jacket. He walked slowly and we could hear every sound on the mountain. So that’s what we’re gonna do. I’ll walk, you follow. 

I didn’t know exactly where I was going. I never looked back. I assumed they were behind me, but maybe they weren’t. Maybe they just watched me walk off by myself. After all, what actually compelled them? All it was was me saying, Let’s walk in silence. I didn’t know if this was making the most of time or making nothing.

We went up an old logging trail that was layered with wet, fallen beech leaves. The sun-light filtered in in spots. Lichen-spotted boulders like the ones in Frost’s poem rose up among the leaves and the woods dripped with the previous night’s rain. I could faintly hear steps behind me. A cough far down the trail. A car in the distance. A rush of breeze. A few birds chittering and cawing. Snapping of twigs and footsteps on the earth.

I looked up hill for a path of sunlight for us to gather in. The path ended in a small grassy clearing, shrunken over time, lined with clusters of birch trees and gnarled maples. Sun warmed the place and crystalline drops of dew were clinging to the stems of grass. One by one the students emerged from the woods. Not one of them spoke. The dome of heaven was open and nothing but the morning was in it. I thought of Creed’s project on the Norse religion, and of the god Bifrost, who could hear grass growing. It was so quiet that it seemed we might be the gods who could hear these smallest of sounds.

After a long while, in which I feared breaking the silence, I asked them:

Did anyone hear anything or have any cool thoughts?

They spoke across the circle in steady succession. No one was afraid, no one fearing anything. The sound of the morning was in them.

I think of the grass and the trees, said Una, And I think how they are not pretending to be anything, or trying to look like they are special, they are just existing, And that’s all they have to do. And they are so strong, just being themselves. I want to be like that.

She finished talking. And then she raised her hand again.

I am thinking about how you could look at life and think of it as just one day. The sun rises and we have just one day. Yesterday doesn’t exist and neither does tomorrow. Even the next moment doesn’t exist. You only have this one.

I suppose this was one of those rare morning songs. We took our chance while the sun was rising. Old time is a-flying. We have to take our walk in the woods while we have it, while we have the woods and while we have time. We have to take care and listen, while youth and blood are warm.

 

 

 

 

Dreams of the Teacher

Good teachers teach their subject as a passion and necessity and they teach it well. Great teachers will further demand that students give their lives, minds and hearts to the process.

Great teachers will also let the thoughts and feelings of their students enter into them. They will pull down the barriers between themselves and their students to be authentic humans, not merely technicians imparting a discipline. Great teachers will not just carry home papers to check at night, but will carry in them their students’ whole lives— their struggles, joys, and the glories of the kids growing up before their eyes.

And so dedicated, it happens that teachers have teaching dreams, because the lives of the students are in them, and do not leave them, even in darkness. I have the recurring dream of trying to get all my students in one room. None of them are listening. All of them are in outright rebellion at the notion of cooperation. My voice, strident and desperate, is lost in a cacophony of laughter and derision and distraction. I leave the room to corral some students who have escaped, and as I drag them in by their shirt collars, others leave out the back door. It is vexing and hellish.

There are days and weeks when teaching can feel like this. No matter how clearly we have set our course, no matter how important the material before us, we seem to drift idly.  The wide sea beckons, but we can not undo the bowline from the cleat, nor fit the oar in the oarlock. There are days in which no epiphanies occur. I hear tired phrases repeated again and again. We read a beautiful passage of The Pearl, and no student seems to care. I can not move them. They are each lost in their own worlds. They want to kick a ball in the sun. Take a walk in the woods with their friend. Their minds are preoccupied: Who will I ride with on the class trip?  How many more days until my birthday? Will I talk to my father again? Why I am the slowest one in math? They do not care, in these moments, what lurks beneath the surface of the pearl. They doodle inane sketches in their notebooks—a cartoon tank shooting at a cartoon bunny rabbit, a lollipop, which is labeled “a lollipop.”  Or they will cut a cast-off orange peel into 100 tiny squares during class, even as we are reading the impassioned writing of one of their peers. They are dissociated, unconnected, merely passing through.

When they finally empty out of the room at the end of the day, there is wreckage and the evidence that they were here, but nothing has been learned. No change effected. I have not reached them, and I see nothing of them but their half-finished assignments, their battered copies of The Pearl left behind on the table, broken pencils, a sweat-shirt crumpled on the dirty floor. I can hear them outside shouting in the afternoon sun but they have already left me, on to the rest of their days.

And I carry all that home with me that night.  On these days, in the classroom or at home thinking back over a day of listless classes, I am in darkness. I can not see what I am doing or whether what I am doing is doing anything. I feel like a painter painting on a huge canvas in the dark. I can not see the marks I am making nor the ones others are making. I am not even sure if they are in the room. And none of us can see if we are making something beautiful, coherent, or clear.

“It is all darkness—all darkness and the shape of darkness,” Kino says in The Pearl. In the case of Steinbeck’s fable, the darkness comes from losing sight of what is most essential. Kino’s Song of the Whole becomes infected. One dream replaces another. The deep love of family is replaced by overarching desire, some of it good, some of it poisonous. He dreams of education, equality, justice. But when Kino dreams of a gun and the power a gun represents, he goes a dangerous step from the self that once stared lovingly and knowingly into the light of Juana’s eyes. He goes into the darkness. The most essential vision in the world becomes occluded.

My struggle is to keep all of us focused on what is most essential. To keep our collective vision trained on a valuable quest. And to  be aware of what is most essential for each child. To have each child right at the edge of productive and creative tension, neither overwhelmed nor stagnant. My job is to keep them all on that edge where they are seeing and feeling anew, and to make school feel like it’s a new world every day.  And then  every night thinking about how to do it again the next day, to keep it intense, taut, fresh. This is the daily work..

And then there are the larger motions. We are moving them through time as they move through time. At NBS, where the students are 12, 13, 14 years old, we take them from childhood to the threshold of adulthood. When they arrive at the school in seventh grade they are still losing their baby teeth. When they leave, they have their learner’s permits.

This week I had two dreams in one night. In the first, I am helping a student dig. We are peering down into a large pit, perhaps four by four by four feet. To reach in with a pointed shovel is awkward and ungainly. There is something rich we are seeking, almost like picking through ice cream for the chocolate chunks. The chunks in the pit are black onyx and shining, luminous and damp and alive. But when my student digs she only brings up tiny bits of the dark chunks and mostly dry gravel and other contaminating matter.  I show her how to use the point of the spade to move the gravel aside and then dig under the shining chunks to lift them up. Even this proves difficult. So we kneel together at the edge of the pit and I show her how to dig in with her hands. I dig with my hands and we push the gray gravel to side and uncover a vein. We fill our hands with dark living soil and we lift it up. We have in our hands more treasure than we can hold.

When I wake up the next morning the dream is clear. It tells me something I have not articulated but I know to be true. This is the posture and motion of teaching and learning. We show them how to do a thing. We dig, together, with our students. They keep trying, getting closer to the most important matter. Every day we kneel together at the well, altar, mountain side, or pit. Our hands have to be dirty and nimble and in it all the way in order to find the motherlode.

In the second dream I am coming down a river with the all of the students in the school.  The river is very broad, alternating between a slow, deep flowing movement and an occasional line of shoals. We gather in a shallow place on one side of the river where the rocks are barely covered over. Our destination is the other side and we have paused here to assess how to get there.  The kids come drifting down the river one by one into our shelter, all of us wondering how we will get across.  I peer out out across the river and there in the middle of the shoals are many older former students, students from the early years of the school, all full grown, all hale and hearty. They are tall and bright and the sun is on them and their faces glow with pride and confidence. They move about, laughing and joking, and a few of their younger siblings sit on a fence rail, looking out in pride at their older siblings and with anticipation that they will soon be among their brothers and sisters.

I wade across to greet them all, happy to see them so content and strong and grown up. A parent among them calls out to me and tells me they are bringing firewood to the site across the river. They are readying it for us. We only have to get across. Then the older students shout up river. “Bring the boats down now! Send them down!” And the boats come floating down from around a bend, small boats, each one the exact size for each of our kids and their few things. Wading knee-deep, I gather one of the floating boats. “Go in and get your things, Vivian, and I will send you across.”

The work of teaching is not to stand above or beyond the students, but to be in and with them. We wade and dig and swim and search alongside them, and we aim to get them across to the other side. They will go alone, but we give them a destination, and we have helpers and those who went before, and so we send them along. When, in the furious pace of our days, I am unsure of what I am doing in my teaching, I remind myself that my essential work is to get them across with their things, one at a time, so that they can keep on moving into the lands beyond the river.

We had a short week last week, and much of our energy w was spent with everyone tidying up and getting all old work finished and done. By lunch, everyone had completed all their work, a great relief to the them and us. And it was a beautiful fall day, not a day to sit inside for two hours and simply listen to words. So we gathered them up and I read one brief passage from The Dhammapada, the teachings of the Buddha, which I  have been reading to them little by little over the course of the fall.

       Those who mistake the unessential to be essential and the essential to be unessential, dwelling in wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential. (v. 11)

      Just as rain breaks through an ill-thatched house, so passion penetrates an undeveloped mind. (v. 13)

       By rousing himself, by earnestness, by restraint and control, the wise man may make for himself an island which no flood can overwhelm. (v. 26)

They listened patiently and then we headed down to the North Branch River. The kids ran out of the building gleefully roused, released, free, into the light, disburdened of responsibility. Some ran through the woods. Others walked more meditatively along the road that winds steeply down to the bridge. Once by the river we gathered on the piled rocks below the bridge. The river ran clear and cold, spilling over quartz and amber boulders into black pools teeming with gold and red leaves tumbling downstream.

“First we’re going to meditate,” I told them. “Stay on this side of the river, from here to  that big boulder there in the middle of the river. Stay close to each other. Stay in a sacred silence. We hear each other talking and talking every day. Listen to the sound of the river. It’s more interesting than anything we could ever say.”

The river was pouring and rushing behind us and I had to talk loudly over it.

“Then, when you are ready, go from your meditation to some place close by, here by the river. This bank here is our raft. Stay together on it. Build a sculpture from what you find. As you build see what others are doing around you. Then connect yours to theirs. But no talking. Connect yours to theirs using whatever you find until all 30 sculptures are connected somehow. If it’s an electrical circuit, the charge will go into anybody’s work and eventually make it to all the others. Now go.”

We scattered out along the west bank. No sound but the river, nothing but sand and leaves and damp rocks, trees and the wind and the fallen leaves, and them sitting still and silent by the river, together and apart. Then one by one we began to work, each of us making something as best we could—a cairn of rocks, spirals of ferns and pebbles on a boulder, bridges of sticks reaching across churning falls. And then paths of rocks and gold leaves extending and meandering out among us like little veins.

It wasn’t anything eternal or lasting that we made by the river. The first heavy rains would wash it all away. But on this day it felt essential and earnest. It was the work of minds who do not yet have to cross the river.  It was the work of those who are still building for the joy of it.

Little Birds

There is a becoming-famous line in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.” “Crozzled” means black or burnt at the edges. McCarthy’s dystopian vision is merciless: all dreams are eternally consigned to burnt hearts which are tombs of darkness, and the last few hearts that carry them are now fast dying. That’s a hard way to live and proceed.

One of the uplifting things about teaching adolescents is that none of them have, yet, crozzled hearts. Their hearts are still alive—tender, anxious, excited, eager, fumbling, full of all kinds of love—for animals, trees, the seasons, games, invention, and each other. They still have many little things which make them glad. If they are lucky, and most of them are, their spirits have not been broken, and their hearts have not been crisped and blackened. And because their hearts are still intact and full of dreams, wonderful kinds of opening can still happen in them and to them. New feelings to be felt, new rooms into which they can walk. We want their ten thousand dreams to be alive in the world, and for them to be alive in those dreams.

Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about what can happen to a heart that is caught “off-guard.” The poem, “Postscript,” describes being caught in the wind between two magnificent, miraculously beautiful sights—the ocean on one side, and a flock of swans on a lake on the other. And the poet wants to stop and capture it, to take a picture, to hold it, keep it, make it his own, and so preserve it. But the poet also knows there is no hope. “Useless to think you can stop and capture it,” he writes. Instead, he says, all we can do is let what we see and feel come into us and and let it blow our hearts wide open.

Yes, I  want my students to have their hearts shaken and blown open, to have hearts that are loosened and unmoored, unlocked, unguarded, neither fixed nor finished but exposed to the wind and weather— hearts that can be caught unawares and be worn and made.  Not violently, but by degrees. Not in the sense of breaking their hearts to make them feel pain, but to pry them open bit by bit so light pours in. A broken heart, one that is cracked—that’s a heart that can let things in and out. That’s a heart that can be changed. Once, a student told the class that after reading of the death of Coyotito in the The Pearl, he had cried.

“Good,” I said. “You let the book in. Steinbeck wanted you to cry. He wanted you to be so mad that you wanted to smash your hand against a plaster wall. He wanted you to cry about the loss of innocent life. He wanted you to rage at injustice and greed and illusion. He was trying to break your heart and change you so you would feel the majesty of love and the bitterness of despair and the power of courage. He’d be overjoyed to know that you read The Pearl and you cried.”

I hope that their hearts can be blown open, and how we do this at the North Branch School, by degrees and by slow accretion, is by writing about ourselves. First, I have each of them write three or four place descriptions. Our focus is not the place so much as the moments that happened in the place. The brief moment of feeling, insight, epiphany, or revelation, those moments when the heart was blown open, when sense grew, when the horizon of knowledge or feeling expanded, when the heart could feel life coming in.

In their writing they must be clear, specific, rooted to real events. I refuse to let them write fiction, because they don’t even know themselves yet, much less worlds beyond them. Their fiction, from my experience, is boring enough to drive one insane. We eschew generality and abstraction. We clamor after grit, dirt, raw feelings, broken things, the stuff that really happened. Moments of change, turmoil, cracking, and revelation. They learn to describe life accurately, neither with pretense or over-inflation nor with cynicism or glibness. They learn to choose moments of importance, when they saw into their own lived experience or touched knowledge or an understanding beyond themselves. They have to practice. They have to write every week, and they have to write a great deal, and under pressure. They have to hear good writing—poetry, other voices, strange formulations and heightened expression.

Every week I get a pile of their writing. Twenty-six sketches. Most of them 500-700 words. 15,000 or so words to read. I correct them for comma-splices, capitalization, spelling, proper dialogue and quotation form, and awkward constructions. I mark up anything with a scent of cliche. I root out repetitions, informal lingo, lazy description. Clouds do not dance. No one is here for you. You can not say it is beautiful. Describe it in beautiful language, and will feel in our minds that it is beautiful. No smile is plastered on your face. Smells do not envelope anyone. Your eyes did look down at your feet where they were resting on the couch that you could feel holding up your body. Your feet were not running; you were.

I tell them to carve it down to the central feeling in the place. The place is a holder, a vessel into which experience is poured; they construct little momentary worlds where they felt something, saw something real. Where reality gave way to higher truth, as in a morning meeting this past week, when Joe raised his hand.

“I was at baseball practice,” he begins quietly.  “And I had just come from the Snow Bowl where Declan’s band was playing, and I had gotten this henna tattoo on my hand. And a kid on my baseball team said, ‘What’s that? Isn’t that like a girl thing?'”

It is impossible to not imagine the clueless derision that must have tainted his teammate’s words. Joe is sitting next to me at the big table and now he his about to cry.

“Is it a girl thing?” I ask.

“No. Well, sometimes, sort of, but not really.”

“It seems like mostly girls get them,” someone says. This may or may not be a fact, but it is immaterial to why Joe has brought up his henna tattoo. He’s talking about a little cut to his soul. His bringing it up comes from his sensing that what his teammate said was wrong; he’s also probably asking the kids at this table what they think, and to stand behind him.

“Are your teammates experts in craft and folk traditions of Hindu culture?” I ask. “Because I know for a fact that at some Hindu festivals, men get henna tattoos on their backs, chests and shoulders.”

“No. These guys are definitely not experts on henna,” Joe says, smiling.

“Then why should they have a clue? Clearly they are morons, or they are stupendously ignorant. Clearly they’re f-ing idiots about that topic. So what could you say?”

“Fuck off?” Joe suggests.

“You could. But only if that is natural to you.You have to say it in a way that feels right to you.”

“I don’t get it,” says Iris. “Those guys sound like they’re kind of dumb. I mean, I think henna is cool.”

There is a rise of assent and cross-talk about how henna is cool. “I got one on my knee once!” someone calls out.

And still, there is a sense in the room that we are facing some kind of subtle, insidious fact about our culture. No matter where we go, no what we do, someone is going to rain down on expressions of self. To stand up to your peers, when you only have the first glimmerings of your deepest truths, is not easy. At their age I was uncomfortable and unsure, and more often than not the courage of my students surpasses my own. I certainly would not have gotten a henna tattoo for the fear that the response from my friends would have been the very one that Joe experienced. Knowing what I have felt, then, makes me feel his fear is real, worthy of exploration and consideration.

“You know what you can say?” I offer. “You can say to the baseball kid, ‘Actually, I don’t know if it’s a girl thing. I did go to a concert at the Snow Bowl. My friend Declan is in a band that played there. That’s where I got the tattoo. And also, the girls in my class think it’s cool.’ Then you say to him, ‘how do you like them apples?'”

The class laughs at that. I’m not sure what I want them to understand most. Maybe it’s that going to hear a concert of your friend at the Snow Bowl is the coolest thing you could ever do, a lot cooler than standing around a baseball field tearing down your teammate. Or that getting a henna tattoo is perfect, and right, if that’s how your spirit moves. Or that we should all get henna tattoos, right now, together. I think, momentarily, of the NFL players who have kneeled, or stayed in the locker room, or locked arms, or raised a fist, or told the president he’s a bum, because they wanted to show solidarity in the face of someone or a system who would name them, confine them, marginalize their voices, call them sons of bitches, or condemn them without hearing their expressions of belief and despair, or tell them that they are traitors, to a gender or a nation.

I do want them to have the courage to say “f- off ” (in language appropriate to them) if someone insults their souls and their tenuous steps toward self-definition. I do want them to do what Walt Whitman counseled, that great Whitmanian “You-can-not-touch-me,-nor-do-I-give-a-damn-if-you-try.”

          Re-examine all you have been told 

          in school or church or in any book,

          Dismiss whatever insults your own soul;

          And your very flesh shall be a great poem…

Still I am wondering, though, what kind of message has been transmitted by Joe’s story or our talking about it. What has been most clearly impressed in the class? That there are things boys should not do, because they are “girl” things? That there are rules about gender roles we must abide? That we can just say “piss off” if someone tries to tell us what to be or not to be? Or that we must stand up vigorously to violations to our sense of rightness? We are left asking, “How do we navigate the multiplicity of voices telling us that even when we follow our heart’s desire, we may still be breaking the Code. IN fhe face of this how do we make of our flesh a very great poem?

                                                       ***

In the beginning of the school year the students are rested and renewed, their tanks filled.  Their pencils are sharpened and they are all bold intention to succeed, ready to do it right. Like anything, and especially with anything associated with adolescents, reality gets in the way. The wheels loosen and begin to wobble. The pace speeds up. New demands are made, ones never before imagined. It’s harder than we thought. Things get lost, misplaced, off track. Time is tight. Emotions intensify. And before we know it, we have before us not the cleanly stated goals and dreams of the first days of school as we heard articulated in the speeches, but the messy truths and collisions and conflicts that come with living and growing together in a small space, every day.

What I mean is, now it begins to get complicated. It’s one thing to say, “I want to be kind!” “I want to be free of judgment!”  “My holy grail is to go further and not turn back!”  These are the hopes and dreams of noble hearts, but they have not yet actually had to become, struggle, break free, or go further. The first five or six weeks have merely been preparation for the harder journey.

At our school we have a collection of old desks from the English department of Middlebury College which we allow the kids to write on. Every few years we sand them down and they start over. There are layers and layers of comical and revealing words—from “I love Justin Bieber” to “I love North Branch” to the “NBS Nineties Rock.”  And thereon written name after name after name–the eternal quest of these particular adolescents to inscribe their names into the book of life.

But in the middle of the week we find new words engraved on desk. “Iris is dumb as —-.” These words send a ripple through the school. In meeting it’s brought up. A few of the students tender offerings.

“That’s not okay,” Ethan says.

“Who sits over there at that desk?” another asks. For a moment blame is cast upon the 8th grade. Only their class has the numbers which require someone to sit in that farthest desk in the math room. But questions of “who” do not obliterate the ugly feeling that settles over the school. Something invisible, something more than words themselves, has begun snake into the air.

A classmates turns to Iris.  “How do you feel about it?” 

She is cautious and unsure, as if to take a stand, to feel it fully, is not safe.  “Well, it’s no big deal,” she says. “I mean, I don’t like it, but, I don’t know. It’s not really anything.”  Her face is flushed, and she sits stffly and upright at the table. Her words hang in the room.

“If I poked you, would that be a big deal?” I asked.

“No.”

“If I did it again, would that be a big deal?”

“Not really. Kind of annoying, I guess.”

“What if every time you came in the class I poked you again. Would that be a big deal.” 

“Yes.”

“What if I did it every day repeatedly and never told you why?”

“Eventually I’d want to leave the school.”

“And if I cut your soul with words like these? It’s not a big deal? Maybe you can walk by it? Yes?

“Yes.”

“But two times?

“Then that really doesn’t feel good.”

“What about ten?”

“I would want to leave the school.”

“And that would be a tragedy. And everyone in here would be guilty. Because somehow, we let it happen, over and over. And we’d be wondering, ‘how in the hell could we have let that happen? Why didn’t we say stop?'”

I turn to the class. “You see, the distance between no big deal and tragedy is a very short distance.  So when a cut to the soul comes, you have to be ready to speak to it and feel it and address it, because if you don’t it only takes nine more cuts before it’s over. Life, our life together, is that precarious. You guys have to decide if you are will to allow it to be ‘no big deal’ or if it is a big deal. It that’s not a big deal, then you have to tell me what is. You make the world or you let it be unmade. I will tell you what though. If you poked me once, I’ll bite your head off. I’ll make a stand and I draw a line. If someone anonymously writes, “Tal is a shit teacher,” I won’t take one step forward until I address it. And my assumption is that the sayer of those words is hiding a bigger and more important truth behind his anonymous graffiti, and that’s what I’ll go after.  It’s a tragedy if you begin to tolerate the thing that you don’t want, if you go silent from the fear of feeling powerless. You all have to take a stand about this, whether it touched you or not, one way or another. If you don’t take a stand, you will be next, and then we’ll have ten cuts to the soul, and then we, and everything that we believe, will die.”

Like, I said, I want their hearts to be shaken. The room is silent. No doubt, I am saying too much. My voice, not theirs, is laying down the moral law. Our school will be working when it is their moral law.

I ask again: “Iris, how do you feel. Whatever it is, let yourself feel it.”

“Iris, you can say it, we’re listening,” Isa says.

“This is the place where you can talk about this stuff,” says Geeta. “At the other school you can’t. Here we can talk and listen and that’s what we should do.”

“She’s right, y’all,” I say. “It’s like Kino in The Pearl. He is suddenly afraid of everyone and it changes him into a scared animal. No school is a good school if the students are scared animals. It’s hard enough to be 12, 13, or 14 years old. It’s ten times harder if you have to worry about someone hating you and speaking ill of you–that means you walk into a place every day where destructive feelings are flowing around you but you don’t know who from. You have to talk about it and not be afraid of talking about it.”

“Well, I guess I don’t know,” Iris says. “I already have enough on my plate. I mean, things are hard enough, just, you know, everyday stuff.  I wrote my speech about being free from judgement. This doesn’t help, obviously.” Now she is crying, but there is still something tenuous and reticent in her words.

“Are you holding back because you’re not sure how others feel? Because you haven’t heard much from your classmates?”

“I’m worried that I talk too much. That other people might think it’s not a big deal. I don’t know.” 

“It’s a big deal,” says Henry Black, staring directly at her. “You have a right to be mad. It’s not wrong to be mad.”

“No one talks too much,” I say. “If you are talking about serious things, there’s no such thing as too much.”

“It kind of sucks to not know who it is,” she says. “I’d rather just talk to them face to face.”

“It would feel better if we knew who,” Ethan says. “But even if they anonymously apologized, that would be amazing.”

Then from the end of the table comes another voice. I can’t see, as the voice comes from behind the head of Phoebe. I peer around and see Sydney, who has been one of the shyest kids in the history of the school. Until now. Her voice is clear and direct and fills the space above the table.

“It doesn’t matter who,” she says. “That’s the first thing we think of. But what is more important is what’s behind it. The why. It’s obvious that the person who wrote it has some other bad feeling and this is how it came out and that’s what we need to get to.”

“And if we got to that, Iris, how would you feel?”

“I’d feel so much better,” she says.

“The person could write Iris an email. Or talk to her,” says Creed. “They could say ‘I did it.’ Or ‘I’m sorry.’ Or whatever was behind it. That would be progress.”

“And how would that make us feel?” I ask.

“It would be a relief,” the class responds.

But this is as far as we can go. We’ve talked about it over the course of three days. The unsettled feeling remains. We have no closure. Iris has heard that she is free to speak and feel. Her classmates have stood behind her. Whatever happens next will be our final exam.

                                                         ***

Wallace Stevens wrote a book, The Necessary Angel, about the nature of reality in the poetic imagination. Poetry speaks of lofty and noble things, but it must start in reality and avoid all abstraction. Reality is closest and must be touched and felt. Not “the night sky,” but the night sky, on this one night, you standing among the other bodies and soft voices, when you watched the stars rise up over the field and you felt that you had a place in the world.” Not “The soul aches,” but “my soul aches on this particular day, because of these particular words.” This is the night sky only you know, this is the soul ache only you know. And so your culmination is really that moment when you make the poem of what you have lived, when you make of your flesh a very great poem.

Wallace Stevens wrote that these poetic acts are “enlargements of life.” This, to me, is the higher purpose for learning to write. Obviously, we want them to learn to write so they can communicate clearly, argue convincingly, convey information, make a coherent case. These are the communal functions of writing, to be turned to good or ill depending on the morality and intention of the writer. But simply learning to communicate without a moral,emotional imperative can quickly become an externally focused and impersonal process which leaves both artist and audience cold.

We are aiming for something greater than mere functionality or coherence. We want something incandescent and transcendent. When Una read the poem on Friday, a short poem by e.e. cummings, the lines said directly the hope I hold for them.

           may my heart always be open to little

           birds who are the secrets of living…

                 ….

           may my mind stroll about hungry

           and fearless and thirsty and supple

I am interested in the talking and writing these children do because when they get to their clearest fearless seeing, when they find themselves alive in a night sky full of stars and sparks and blackness, the world, my world, becomes enlarged. There is ever more to see, and it is deeper than we ever knew. And I told them this week that every good thing I have ever learned came from sitting in the room for twenty-seven years listening to their words and their experiments with reality and the truth of their lives. They are the little birds who enlarge the world and who carry the secrets of living.

On Friday afternoon I got an email from Iris’ mother. “Iris just received a confession email and a sincere brave apology.”

Suddenly, despite the rising seas and bitterness of our political discourse, despite the fact that our world seems to be teetering on the edge of a McCarthy-esque apocalypse, I feel a glow of golden light pass over. A week’s worth of talking and struggling got us to the place we had to find. The words the students said found a home in another student’s heart. I am in awe of Iris, who has walked out to the difficult edge. I am proud of the student who has let his or her heart be cracked and changed, who could face a friend with honesty. I am grateful for the class full of kids who made a place where such things could happen. This is the begining of them creating their moral law. This is them turning life into poetry. This is them passing the exam with flying colors. And all of it blows my heart wide open.

Angels of Reality

A student is writing her name over and over in her notebook this morning in meeting and all through literature class. Repetitive block letters, her whole name, middle name too. Today, perhaps, The Pearl is not foremost in her mind. In her preoccupation she is being, after all, what she is, an adolescent. In writing her name again and again, she is, consciously or not, inserting herself into the world. Seeing what it is to have her name written into the book of life, or asking herself with each iteration, “Who am I?”

As I try to draw them into Steinbeck’s retelling of an ancient tale, I am simultaneously asking myself what this signifies. I am thinking about how all kids, in one way or another, repetitively announce their presence or arrival on the scene and then ask again and again, Who am I, and am I seen

All spring last year Will drew four-leafed flowers again and again in his class notebook. Each flower was a kind of carefully drawn mandala, which became his tag, his signifier, his mark that he was here, a new, “flowering” conception of himself. Today Jack draws a series of blooming clouds in green and purple marker, which expand down his page like a slightly off-kilter fractal.

“Check out what I drew in my notebook,” he says to his classmate. Henry evinces no interest, but says coolly, “It looks like something Rosemary would draw.”  Is this a compliment, or is it dismissive?

“No, no, this not the same,” says Jack, a little quieter, defensive, and hopeful still. “This is different because see how I made this?”

“No, sorry, it looks like Rosemary’s.” Jack’s classmate is matter-of-fact, unmovable, unimpressed, and not able to see what Jack has sought. Jack’s classmate walks away to carry on with his business, and Jack stands there at the end of the table, closing his notebook before heading off to class, trailing off, “But it’s not exactly like Rosemary’s…”

The moment when Jack showed a sliver of himself, a moment when his classmate could have opened his eyes, has been cauterised. The golden opportunity to make a connection, to make his friend feel seen—to extend himself across the great divide that seems to eternally exist between all of us—has been missed.

I submit that this tiny incident is an example of how we break each other, or diminish each other, or remain invisible, or feel invisible every day, or always have work to do “see better,” as Kent counsels King Lear. The kids try to make a significant peep. Who is listening?  Who is seeing?

I think of the way a child will swimming or splashing or jumping off the diving board and will again and again say, “Look! Mom! Dad! Grandma! Look, I at what I can do!” In middle school, in adolescence, it is not so much that they are asking their parents directly to see them creating their soul identity, but more so that they are looking for their peers to see them. To congratulate them. To notice them. They are most often themselves alone, or in private. In adolescence they want to be themselves in the world.

What does this moment do to Jack? What does this do to any of us, if the world transmits to us that we do not matter, that our little peeps are nothing but peeps and of no true significance, that so many of our greatest efforts go unrecognized?

Later I sit with Jack’s friend.

“I notice that your mind works in a wildly fascinating way,” I say. “I want to tell you what I see.”

He is listening.

“Okay,” he says. As is most often the case, he is curious and wants to learn. “I’m not sitting you down here to criticize or jump your ass–I just want to play back what I observed.”

I describe the incident, asking him to clarify anything I have gotten wrong.

“What I see is that you connected his drawing, the object, to another object. In a split second you saw his work and knew, exactly accurately, what other world it seemed similar to.”

“That’s a thing about my family. It’s a thing where my mind just makes connections and just goes and connects really fast and I end up about like a million miles over here.”

“That’s so interesting and you see it clearly. You think about object relating to object. But in that split second sequence of seeing and connecting, what about the emotion, the other human?”

“Oh, you mean Jack’s feelings?”

“Yeah, exactly. What was he probably wanting you to see? What was he asking for? Was he asking for you to connect it to some other kid, and to say it was just like hers?  Did he want you to say he was just like Rosemary?”

He smiles. “No, not at all. Of course not.”

“He’s a human. Maybe he is just saying, ‘check out my drawing. If you think it’s cool, I will feel so good. Like I matter.'”

“Oh, I see. I probably didn’t make him feel like he mattered.”

“Logic is good. Pair it with love. Hold them both in balance. See what happens. You saw it is similar to another kid’s drawing, but that fact could remain unstated. You can go straight to the feeling, his feeling, if you are listening.”

I have tried to put this in his mind, a seed, a thing to be incubated. I will do this a hundred times with him and all of them. Will it open them up? Will they see more, or better? Will they, with open hands, be able to hold love and logic together in balance?

In her speech Una wrote, “Every silence was an invitation to say something.” On the literal level she was talking about how meetings and classes at school are sometimes filled with silence. In a larger sense, she was speaking of how existential silence is a kind of immense possibility, a yawning chasm at the edge of which each of us stands continually, anxiously considering the leap, fearing or anticipating the sound of our own voices echoing down and down.

She was speaking of how many opportunities she had and how important it was to take those chances. Similarly, every interaction is an invitation to make something. How many chances come in a day to make or create love and understanding? Incredibly, we are actually given hundreds of chances every day to make or destroy the world. Every day our words or actions can be turned towards love, acceptance, or understanding. Or they can be used for division, separation, argument, and distrust. My students may be only 12, 13, or, 14, but they possess the powers of gods. They make or break the world.

On Tuesday I showed them a picture of Shiva in the Nataraja pose–the Cosmic Dance. I simplified it somewhat (not being a Hindu scholar, I had to) and showed them some of the principle iconographical symbolism. The four arms: one hold the drum which calls creation into being; in the second hand fire, which contains the balancing force of destruction; the third hand, opened in a gesture of open fearlessness and acceptance; the fourth hand which gestures to the raised leg, which is in itself opened as a gate, inviting us in, a signifier our liberation to move inside of cosmic existence; the other foot, which dances on the Dwarf of Ignorance, and the vertical third eye,  from which shines the light of the world. Circled around this figure are the flames of the cosmos, and there is Shiva, dynamically balance at the center of it. Open, powerful, creator and destroyer at once, inviting us into the dance as well.

“Why does he have four arms?” Nate asked.

“Because Gods have more powers. The arms symbolize their supernatural qualities.”

They nodded and listened.

“You clowns possess all of these powers,” I said. “You make the world around you come alive, you struggle and falter and sometimes destroy. You are right now in the middle of the process of dying out of your child self, seeing it, living it, and leaving it at once, and you are remaking yourself into a current and future self, in every moment. You make love and affection between you, or you destroy it, by every action or inaction. When you see, you bring light to the world. You are open or you are closed. You are fearless, or you are fearful. You are moving and dancing, or you are still and stagnant. You hand is a fist or it is open, showing the strength that is open to what life brings. And at your best you are dancing on the dwarf of ignorance. That’s what we are trying to do every day. So, I see you all as Shivas. You all possess these powers too.”

Later we read a place description that had been written by Sydney. In it she’d drew the moment when she had to decide—stay at camp and have fun, or leave camp and see her dying uncle. To her it was a choice between two kinds of betrayal. To chose one was to destroy something else.

The emotional core of her sketch was what was born from having to make a momentous decision. In hindsight, she regretted her choice—to stay at camp. In her mind she had closed her heart and hand, and missed the opportunity to give thanks and gratitude, to see her uncle—who’d just lately sent her a birthday card—one last time. To Sydney, her choice was a destruction. Paradoxically, in writing about it, it became an act of creation, a new consciousness of the sacred and necessary. She was holding in balance two dynamic forces–and so created a new knowledge of reality. In “Esthetique du Mal” Wallace Stevens writes

         One might have thought of sight, but who could think 
         Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees?
         Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
         But the dark italics it could not propound.
         And out of what sees and hears and out
         Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
         So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
         As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
         With the metaphysical changes that occur,
         Merely in living as and where we live. 

Speech found Sydney’s ear. She let the moment teach her. Her power lies in knowing or trying to take all that she has seen and felt and then locate the many selves she possesses, to see life not as a narrowing, or herself as small, but to feel the truth that she exists in manifold forms in sensuous worlds. No longer a tiny thing sitting alone on a bench at camp, marinating in self-reproach, but part of an infinite cosmic swarm, a self being born into a new self.

Their place descriptions are attempts to bring moments of heightened feeling alive in a very short space. No more than 500 words, a compressed moment of poetic seeing. The assignment is to make a concise and clear “stage set” where we can see them alive in their unique forms of thought and feeling and action, a flash of epiphany, a thunderbolt of new consciousness, and shining sense of the depths which flow around and in therm. They write about going into the woods to cry. About sitting on a dock in Ontario, waiting for a loved one to return. The describe floating over the surface of a still lake, thinking about the future, and all the possibilities of tomorrow, and the depths down below. Or remember being curled up in a ball at night, hating themselves and the bodies they live in. Or when an older student let his seventh grade classmate teach him how to narrow the angle while defending the goal, and saw the patience his younger classmate possessed. Or making brownies at dusk, each proper step in the process a “signifier of progress.” Or about a toy tiger given to them by his Papa, and a boy’s memory of Papa’s hand touching the top his head one Christmas eve. Or under the hot sheets in summer, late at night, listening to dad’s car’s slowly roll out of the driveway for a work trip, and wondering where he is the next morning.

Wallace Stevens said that a poet is “the angel of reality,/ Seen for a moment standing in the door.” When the doors are open, we can see them all standing there in most exquisite and beautiful forms. When they approach these doors, and truly see the figure standing there, they see themselves as well. When they let us into their private and immense dramas and show them to us honestly, we begin to see them. Over time, we all begin to see each other. Each sketch, each moment, each glimpse in is a little step, a signifier of progress.  Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, “In Praise of Dreams,” which Sasha read in class today, says:  “I am gifted,/and write many epics./I hear voices/ as clear as any venerable saint.” The words went straight to my previous thoughts. The kids here are gifted, and they can hear voices, especially those of their peers, whom they are coming to love, who might also be, incidentally, saints, gods, and angels.

Building Sanctuaries

NBS Tal’s Weekly Notes #4

On Friday we found out that the Town of Ripton Fire Marshall was forbidding us to burn out Burning School structure. There has been no rain for the last 20 days, and the woods are dry, and a bonfire with a fifteen foot tall wooden structure on it will throw sparks high up into the night breeze. So the kids were a little disappointed. All their work, and hosting a party at their school! It was kind of like finding out you couldn’t eat your birthday cake at your own birthday. But the best thing happened. They did not moan about it. They set to coming up with a solution. They collected the last remnants of wood left-over from the first structure, and they dug other scraps out of the shed. They got out the screw-guns, saws and nails and within one hour had built a miniature “baby” version of the first structure. They were undaunted and resolute. There would be a bon-ire, and we were going to place our sculpture on top of it. In the end, Iris said, she liked the baby one better: it meant that all the words, letters, and quotes each person had put on it were closer together.

She was right. All of the letters and papers were stapled on in a dense mat—old stories and speeches, letters to aunts and uncles, grandparents and class-mates, work from first grade, an essay about Donald Trump, poems by Mary Oliver, the definition of love and of hate, photos of last year’s class, messages to the world. Someone painted, “Forget me not” in purple tempera paint. Phoebe copied down the word “love” in 30 different languages.

Over the years I have watched how the kids respond, once the structure is placed on the fire. They are something quite beyond excited—they are ecstatic, feverish, moved, enthralled. Some of them caper around the fire like wild wood imps; other stare long and hard into the fire and the dark above. Always, every year, there are exclamations: Look! The letter I put on there is burning! There it goes! There is no sadness or regret. There is instead something like pride and wonder. I made this. That’s my work going up into the world. I put something in, and something of me is going out.

Finding this feeling, creating the circumstances in which it may be born— in this must be the very heart of what schools are for. I know we may say, “Schools are for preparing children for the future, to be able to thrive in a globally connected world; schools are for learning discrete sets of skills which will allow them to function in society.” And indeed, schools do this. But there must be something else, something the school makes like wind under wings which allows a body to rise, which makes a body wish to enter the world and give something back to it.

On Wednesday our soccer game was cancelled because the powers that be, no doubt fearing a lawsuit, deemed it too hot to play. Never mind that it was only about 80 degrees, and blessedly plenty of potable water was available, not to mention shade, which can usually be found wherever ballgames are played. Our soccer team practiced nonetheless. With joy, I might add, as early fall shadows stretched across the dry field, and a few crisped leaves spun down from the edge of the woods. We shouted and tried to move the ball as best we could. No one was really minding the score. At the end of practice I gathered the kids together. Their faces were flushed, they were sweating. All of them were smiling.

“Look, you guys, I think all the time about what kind of people you grow up to be. And one of the kinds of people I hope you grow up to be is the kind of person who is strong and willing enough to do things that are physically demanding—like climbing mountains, or carrying heavy loads, or skiing many miles in the deep woods on a frigid day in January, or playing your heart out on a steaming hot day, and to never be a person who complains, but who takes on the challenge willingly and with joy. Have the courage and sturdiness to do the difficult thing.”

But sometimes the kids are fragile. The noise of our days, the speed of them, the density and intensity can be overwhelming. So much so that they will retreat to poems parents read to them when they were little. They will go up into the woods and cry alone. Or lay in the wet grass, angry at the world, clenching their fists until their fingernails make white indentations on their palms. No matter what is going on, feeling is coursing through our days. On Wednesday morning meeting, Henry W. read a short note to Will for his response to Will’s speech. As soon as Henry started to read, he began to tear up, his feeling spilling over into the room. That is commonplace here, and always, when feeling comes out like this, it concentrates the class, as though all at once every sound was shut out and we only heard the single crystal voice. In this case, it was love, affection, and thankfulness for friendship. Henry simply said: Thank you for being my friend. His face turned red and tears dripped off his cheeks, and he his leg vibrated wildly as he tapped his foot as he read the note. He was showing us a room inside of him, his own sacred sanctuary. He’d made a place inside for his friend and he let us see it. To tell it was to show us his inner work and workings, fragile and powerful at once. The courage to put his words into the room—it’s what Wallace Stevens called “a bravura of the mind, a courage of the eye.”

When feelings overflow into the room, it calls us to the deeper places in us, in the way a meditation bell or the singing bowl can make us stop and listen to emptiness or to All. We will feel for the person before us, and we will feel our own needs and wants and emptiness. If we are really listening, we hear the tone of our friend—that’s the fundamental frequency. If we concentrate, we will hear two audible harmonic overtones. We can call these secondary overtones the frequencies we hear inside ourselves, and, perhaps by extension, a faint but perceptible awareness of another tone sounding in other bodies in the room or beyond. When we hear like this, our sense of perception is made more muscular and fine-tuned. This is what we are working on each day.

Teachers live their days with their minds drenched with wishes for their students. We wish for them to see clearly.  Be willing to try a new thing. To not be sheepish. To be full-voiced. To help others who are struggling. To hear or see the most important thing. To remember the lines from the poem. To shout out the words, “I did it.” When we went to the woods on Wednesday for lit class, I wanted them under the trees so they could feel the line in the “Directive” that says, “As for the woods’ excitement over you/ That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves/ Charge that to upstart inexperience.”” When they look up, the still-green maple leaves are lightly whispering and fluttering. I wanted them to see the pecker-fretted apple trees, and the monolithic knees of gray granite stones that the earth continually pushes up, as if to remind us that there is life under and behind us always. When we went to the Frost cabin on Friday, Paul found a pile of wood in the a copse of trees. It was sinking into the earth, blackened and rotted, covered over in lichen and mats of moss. The poem we’d read at school was there in the woods before us, as we sat in the sun and looked down over the unmown field. So we wish for them to find out that the world still contains the things poets place in poems. We wish for them to want to go to the edge of a clearing and find what no one else has ever seen.

In the first weeks of the school year Ben and Oscar and Will found a dead deer in the woods behind the Doug Walker field. Ben ascertained that it had been hit by a car quite recently. The presence of the deer has marked our first few weeks of school, from the excitement of the kids over finding it, and ensuing discussions about what to do with it. Eat it? Call the Game Warden? Some days the first thing arriving students have done is sprint to the woods to look at the deer, to see the process of decay. Last week during Wiffleball, the stench of the deer carried across the field. Lately it seems the eye sockets and have been cleaned out. On Friday afternoon, while we played soccer, vultures circled over the edge of the woods, their wing-tips seeming to touch the tops of the big fir trees.

We are seeing time passing. Nineteen days have gone by, a little more than an eighth of the year. How do we quantify and record what has happened? There are shouts in the back of the fields where several kids are collecting firewood for our bonfire. Other kids are banging away in the basement, manufacturing a church pew out of the remnants of an old organ. Others are building a four-foot by four-foot replica of the “sacred sanctuary” so we will have something to burn to carry our hopes and dreams into the sky. Others are planning a party in the basement, welcoming a new friend and celebrating her birthday. Sasha is sitting with Pam at lunch, working on his algebra. In science they are understanding the word “albedo,” the fraction of light that is reflected back from planet’s surface. A wobbly fan is moving air from outside across the table and papers lift and flutter. In the woods, on a flat carpet of dry pine needles we sit to read a poem. I ask them to close their eyes while they listen. Then they look up, eyes open. The mid-morning sun arrows into our clearing. In the middle of our little circle is an empty space. I could have placed the Holy Grail there for them, but I didn’t. Our time is spent looking into the empty space and trying to fill it up, trying to find the right things to pour in.

They are finding woodpiles, rocks rising up from the earth, the shadow of a vulture, a path that splits into two directions. They are finding that they can toss tea-leaves to the wind and read poems around a boulder; that having flowers on the big room table is good. They are seeing that they can build sanctuaries–big ones and little ones–around a table, in a pasture, on the forest floor, and inside themselves.