A Good School

I have ideas about what a good school is, ideas which should apply to any school, from pre-K to college. Kids should be happy there most of the time. Happy times should be intermixed with measured amounts of tears, doubt, confusion, turmoil, tension, and mystery. A visitor, upon entering the school, should be able to hear shouts, laughter, singing, and conversation. There should be few or no phones. There may be computers, but there should also be  hammers, saws, brooms, cleaning supplies, pencils, measuring devices, knives, tape and other building materials readily accessible. Computers should be no more or less or important in the school than a dustpan or duct-tape. People should be moving about, inside and outside. There should be messes of a wide variety—paint, cut papers, crumbs, clay, paste, dirty dishes, machine parts and electronics. The tools of work—paper, marking instruments, glue, containers, hand-outs—should be visible. At the end of a day or a class, there should be evidence of what happened: scissors, glue, scraps of paper, smells of materials, open books. Moreover, at the end of class, more than a few students should be mentally or emotionally agitated to the degree that they need to talk about what happened the next day.  There should be many things on the wall–art, posters, memorabilia, postcards, photos, printed words. There should be projects or art hanging from the ceiling, on the floor, in hidden corners, works that both the teachers and the students have arrayed there. The objects hanging or displayed should be the work of the students as well as representations of the work of the other thinkers or artists the students study.  The whiteboard or chalk board should filled with lists of things happening, to do, or wild, scrawled utterances of a certain moment and circumstance that may be a mystery to others in the school.

There should be evidence of daily living— food, eating, cooking, and clothes. Students’ own belongings should be mixed in with the school’s detritus. This indicates a merger of the lives of the children from outside of school with the matters of life inside the school. At any moment there should be a great number of things going on and a wide variety of activity–from the pointless and child-like, to profound, mind-bending, or poetical-metaphysical. In classrooms there should be laughter intermixed with searching and serious work.  There should be a base standard of excellence with which everyone is familiar, and which is defined each year by the given class of students, towards which everyone is actively working. Each student should feel his or her importance in the school, and should be able to speak articulately and excitedly about what happens there each day. Each student should feel a sense of attachment, belonging, and responsibility to the school. Each student should feel like he or she is seen and known by the teachers, and each student should be engaged in an ongoing conversation with his or her teachers that focuses both on the personal and extra-curricular life of the student as well as on the discrete academic projects or skills the student trying to master or complete. In a good school teachers will make a conscious personal connection or conversation with every student every day.

The students should learn something new each day. They should be able to look back on their time in the school, over months or years, and be able to see how they grew, changed, expanded. Mistakes should be an everyday part of the learning, and there should be no shame in mistakes, but a willingness to look at them, think about them, and learn from them. Problems in the school should be everyone’s problem, and those problems or issues will be dealt with with all of the students together, openly, with everyone having a chance to speak. The school should be small enough, or be able to be broken down into small enough groups, so that normal conversations can be held in class, like a large family around a dinner table. There should be argument, debate, disagreement, and friction, as these lead to the development of new ideas and understanding. Assent and agreement should also be sought, and when assent is attained, the moment must be captured and slowed down so it can be felt and remembered. The students will know what that assent means, why it is important, and how it came to be. There should be hundreds of questions asked every day, by both students and teachers. Breakthroughs—emotional, intellectual, artistic, personal, psychological—should be celebrated vigorously and discussed broadly and at length. A large part of the thinking and discussing should be about thinking and thought. All the feelings that one encounters in life will also be present and felt in the school. No feeling or idea should be alien. And the feelings of the students, the emotional and developmental undercurrents that course through them or sweep them along, will be central to the collective pedagogy. The subject will not only be subjects, but the children themselves.

There should be a history of the class that the class knows and is actively involved in making. When things go badly, that must also become part of the learning, and so become part of the school’s history.  The students should feel that they are part of making history, making thoughts and creations that have never before been made. A visitor to the school should feel they have entered a different country, where there are customs and traditions which, while strange or incomprehensible, seem to leave the participants in them in state of joy and excitement. The visitor should be able to feel the particular energy and affections between the students, and wonder how it came to be.

There should be a “head,”an organizing leader or spirit-guide, that undergirds the whole enterprise, and this head must participate in every aspect of the school, do the projects, experience all the feelings of the students, practice the same disciplines, suffer the same hardships, learn along side of the students. The leader and teachers must also be as vulnerable as the students, work as hard as they ask the students to work, and be willing to be openly self-critical. The teachers will both love and be intolerant of the students–love them for what they are and are becoming, intolerant for when they come up short or don’t exert their powers as they can. The students and teachers will feel safe in bringing in aspects and truths of their lives from outside of the school into it, so that life and learning are seamless. The teachers will be humans in the process of learning and growing as well, not mere technicians or facilitators of a discrete and confined subject.

At the end of a day, the students should feel a little reluctant to leave, and they should feel a little excited to come back the next day. And at the end of it all, the students should feel that they are part of the school, that their school was vital; that they gave themselves to it; that they swam with a school of other beautiful fishes, that they were an important dog in the pack, big or little, that the herd needed them and knew, appreciated, and loved them for the contributions and the person they were in the school.

If you walk into a school and sense that all the above-listed items are happening and true, you have walked into a good school.

Last week Henry Black brought his gas-powered remote control car to school and Henry Swan explained to Isa how the throttle works. Will made a pasta car that looked like a rhinoceros and which he named “The Pablo Escobar Cocaine Cowboy Mobile,” because, he explained, he’s been watching documentaries about organized crime. In the process of making pasta cars students burned their fingers and while making stained glass they cut their fingers and while grouting their tiles they roughened their fingers.The students climbed around in the woods and deep snow and came back into class with clots of ice in their hair and left puddles of water by the door. Everywhere there were bits of broken spaghetti and bow-tie pasta and glue guns plugged into the walls. Vivian took her Pasta mobile down from the shelf and held it up and said, “This car is going to win,” and then, as she spoke, the entire front axle and wheels fell off and broke on the floor. We all laughed and shouted, “instant karma!” and then later Vivian came to me to proudly show me how expertly she had repaired her car. Lena and Syd, along with two eighth graders and two seventh graders, made a pregnant snow-man-woman. Apparently, Lena cared very much about making sure this pregnant snow-man-woman had properly formed body parts of all kinds.

All of us were moved by Henry Swan’s character sketch of Isa, as he tried to understand this feeling of love and crushes and coming into the world of being a social animal. The class took care of Henry Black’s dog, Hazel, laughed when she whined in lit class while we were discussing freedom of expression in 1984, and marveled at Hazel’s back flips when they tossed her snow-balls in the field.. Up in the woods Ethan pretended to be a Vermont logger. Henry Swan was drilling a hole in a leaf-spring down in the basement, which made an infernal noise until he got a proper drill-bit. Henry was converting the leaf-spring into a meat cleaver, an idea he somehow conjured up after talking to Celeste, whose dad makes knives. Tal, Rose, Phoebe and Iris watched from the science room windows as the couples and pairs of friends went hand-in-hand into the woods across the snowy field; and then saw Henry Swan emerge from the woods in his Russian military overcoat, and then collapse face-first on the frozen field, like he had spent himself to the last during the Battle of Stalingrad.

We all waited while Lena sang the Hebrew prayers over the menorah each morning of Hanukkah, and laughed a little when the matches snapped off and the cheap candles kept going out, and we listened to the sweetness or her singing the three-thousand year-old prayers. Phoebe told Syd that she was good at art and that made Syd feel good, and later Syd said she “felt oddly but extremely happy for no good reason.”  We all came up with our own trees of life, trees that no one had ever seen before in the history of the world until we drew them at 2:45 on a Thursday afternoon. Syd learned that Phoebe loves her, and that she (Syd) can’t always protect people and that sometimes “you just have to step down and leave them to figure it out for themselves.” We talked about helping. We have to help those who are doing the things that everyone should be doing. Henry Black said: “The mysterious things I experienced? Math, drawing rocks, watching Swan draw tree-roots, learning and thinking about crushes.” Someone else asked: “Why did I draw my tree the way I did?”

Phoebe watched Isa and Henry hug and remembered it.  Phoebe learned from every science project and tried to be looser around people and love them. There was mystery and excitement, she wrote, to see each Tree of Life that each classmate drew, and she realized that if you set yourself on a path, and it’s good one, try to stay on it.

Someone noticed that Creed got up to get Ethan water when Ethan’s voice was getting dry during his project on Buddhism. Ethan told us about the eight-fold path and the four Jewels. Ethan told us that we could all be Buddhas, that we had it in us to take the teachings and make them our own. Iris worked making a pastamobile that’s a Christmas Tree delivery truck with little Christmas trees and lights, but she misspelled the word “Chrismas” (sic). Vivian was happy and joyful when Iris came into the school calling her name and telling her to come out into the snowy woods, and she loved that Henry Black drew a teetering pile of rocks for his tree, while she carefully drew her own, an ornate rose plant emerging from an open hand.  And meanwhile, she was thinking about why we live, how time passes and how we continue on. “What’s our purpose? Do some people live their whole lives never speaking up and die without making a mark? Did their life matter then, make a difference, was it a life worth anything?” Then Vivian said that in a a conference, after hearing his beautiful sketch, she learned that Henry Swan is trying to become a better person and that to do that he needs to not be protected, and he doesn’t want to be protected. “He’s figuring himself out, so am I. But he has a better idea. And that older siblings have a lot of control over their younger siblings, and they can move them to be better people.” 

Nate and Joe were talking about man-boobs, which made some people laugh.  Vivian and Wagner and Geeta built a tunnel in the snow. And when everyone went to make Quinzees, everyone already knew how to do it. Geeta asked Rose to help her pull her glove over her coat-sleeve. “I know I’m being like a five-year old, but I hate snow in my sleeve,” said Geeta. Wags gave a piggy-back ride to Celeste and found out how light she is. Wags was struck by how in a dystopia like the one in 1984, people would be “heroes” for being spies against their own people, designing grenades to kill the most people, and blindly following a leader.  Will kept up with his “what if” questions, like, “What if I was attacked by ten bears but was wearing a mummy suit?” and Oscar answered the questions seriously. The three big mounds of snow in the field were evidence of a group of people who built a thing together. According to Lena, Elise wielded sarcasm deftly and sharply, responding to Lena’s incessant bragging about how good the ninth grade quinzhees were by saying, incisively and deadpan, “Good for you.”

Someone realized that everyone has to find a way to excel. We talked about how we may not understand everything perfectly, but we have to find a way to do what we each can do in way that is excellent. Una showed Creed and Phoebe her way of drawing, and she liked sharing that. Then, by random chance, she found a book on the shelf about anarchy by Emma Goldman. “I can’t wait to read it!” she said.  And she found excitement and pleasure in being able to make references and talking about “the Wall’ with her friend Isa—finding points of commonality and something to share.Henry Swan remembered to ask me if I had listened to “There is No Sun” by Sun Ra, and when I said I had not yet, he remembered to send it to me again.

Tal told Joe that in school activities he, Joe, sometimes does less than others, and that while others were pushing wheelbarrows of snow, he was throwing snow-balls at the snow mound. Joe responded. “I need to pick it up. Not everything is perfect. Life can’t be your fantasy.” When we talked about how to be a great older sibling, Isa said she realized she had power to help her sister ease into the world, and Maddy learned more about how she can be a better big sister. Then Maddy wrote Phoebe a long list of real compliments and told Phoebe that Phoebe is a good friend. Sasha carried his “101 Greatest Science Fiction Movies Ever” book around. Sam felt pride when he made great pasta-mobile wheels, and worked in the basement shop with Tal, Oscar, Will, and Iris. We discussed Net Neutrality. Some of us wanted to make Molotov cock-tails in response. Ben and Henry Black and Oscar knew a lot about it. Declan finished his car and used a better wheel and axle arrangement (and plans to use powdered graphite for a lubricant), than Tal, who bragged a lot but then accidentally destroyed his car at the very moment when it was almost complete.

We learned that Leonardo knew things no one else knew. Geeta made a poster about Leonardo that set the standard and included the quote from Leonardo’s notebooks, “Life without love, is no life at all.”  Some of the things we came to know: that Star Wars can have spiritual meaning.  That every person can never be fully known. Wondering what does it take to change somebody? And asking, “Why do we find that we ourselves give up our voices; Or, why would humans want to let go of their voices, give them up?” as seems to be the case in 1984. Someone else realized that everyone has hidden parts of them, an inner shyness, no matter how extroverted.  And realizing that seeing the good AND bad of a person or thing is okay—it is wrong to see a thing in only one light—everything has multiple facets and it is better to know this. Someone else learned that everyone, it seems, has to belittle others in order to make themselves look better.

Swan said in meeting that he was sick on Thursday night, and in the old days he’d be like, “Please, I’m sick, don’t make me go to school.” But this time he convinced his mom that he HAD to go school, because he WANTED to go to school. Ben told about a lady on the bus who told him about how she had gone to a small school like ours and she told him to treasure it and take care of it. Tal said that it was hard to make a school like ours, and a lot of time they don’t survive. It’s hard to make them live, even harder to make them soar. Celeste said our school was soaring, and then she proclaimed, “Hallelujah!”


Cultivating Work-Lust

Half the time I’m telling them what to do, how to live, the right way to do a thing. This is how you re-read your words to edit them. Keep a list of your dreams. Make a picture of the idea. Fill in the white space in your mandala. Ask the question again. Read the passage out loud. Fill in the blank spaces in your mosaic. Add a detail to the detail. Don’t stop until you know what you want to write next.

I try to be a voice strong and insistent enough to get inside them. He said to do this. The solution here is to see it from above, float over it, get some distance. 

Other times I let them lead, as on last Monday, when Joe proposed that we mimic part of the last pages of Siddhartha. There, Siddhartha’s follower Govinda asks Siddhartha to tell him what’s he’s learned in life, what secrets or doctrines he can pass on before their final parting. Siddhartha responds by picking up a small pebble, and launches into a monologue about the wisdom he has accrued.

Joe’s idea was that at the beginning of class we would all go outside in silence and pick up our own rock, meditate with it, then bring in into class for discussion. I said, “Great idea.”

We read the pebble passage in class and then they headed out the door. While the were outside in the woods looking for their meditating rocks, I went to the office to discuss other matters. When I returned to the classroom, they were all back around the table, each of them with a stone or pebble, or in the case of Celeste, a breadloaf-sized rock, and they were in the middle of conducting their own conversation without me.

When this happens I know they they care about their learning and what happens here. I know they are making the school something of their own, with their hand prints on it.

I want them to learn to care. For their school work.  For the school. For their families. And for each other. I want them to begin to carry the small burden of anxiety that comes from being old enough to care about things around and beyond them. I think of it as a small voice inside of them that speaks just above a whisper, “Remember and hold everything as precious. You have to make it become something more.”

I sometimes show them the corner of a prominent bookshelf in my classroom. The top of the shelf could have been joined with a simple butt-joint. But the edges of the shelf would not have aligned, and over time they would have separated. The shelf would still hold books, but it would be neither beautiful nor properly joined.

Instead, however, the shelf-top is made with two different kinds of wood and is flawlessly mitered, with a wooden spline of a different color wood joining the corner, so that the spline is visible, gleaming brightly with shellac.

“Someone took the time to do this right,” I tell them, pointing “The carpenter took pride and time in what he was doing. The skill and the care is visible, right here. It could have been done crappily and fast and without thought, but it wasn’t.”

On Monday morning all the 8th and 9th graders had mandalas they’d drawn as a final assignment for finishing Siddhartha. They were to have chosen a quote from the book, words that conveyed their strongest feeling about the book, and place the quote at the center of their design.

I asked them them if they were happy and proud with what they’d made. Isa had hers sitting on top of her books.

“How do you feel about how it came out?” I asked.

“Pretty good, but I ran out of time. I loved doing it. I worked on it from 8-2 on Sunday. I wanted to put more color up in these corners.”

“Lena, are you happy with yours?”  Hers was buried under her books, computer, and laying face down.

“Not really. “

“Why not?”

“Because when I came in I thought mine wasn’t good.”


“Because I looked at other people’s.”

What she’d brought in was not accompanied by knowing pride. Instead, she measured it against what others had done. But what was her standard, independent of the world, that she could use to set her direction and measure progress towards her goal.

“If you have your own standard, and you met it, you’ll be satisfied,” I said. “If you have a standard and you didn’t meet it, you can be disappointed. But if your only standard is what others do, you’re kind of flying blind. You have to know what your vision is and how to get there, and eventually that has to be independent of what others do.

 She stared at me, nodding faintly. 

“You are no one but yourself, and you have to learn how to be satisfied with yourself or not, to know on your own terms, by your own lights what is good, great, poor, your own constantly pushed-against limits.  Find your own limit, and move yourself there. Don’t look at others and then judge yourself.”

The day a student comes in excited about what her or she has made, wanting to show it to the world—that is when I know they are teaching themselves, directing their own lives, going deeply into their work, becoming forgetful of judgment, all the while being disciplined and self-aware. Once that happens, students become self-propelled. Learning, knowledge, even wisdom, can be self-generated.

“If you’ve made it to that place, where you almost don’t want to give it in to me, when it feels precious to you, or you want to take it home and put it on your wall, then you will know that you are really doing it.”

We ask them to begin to learn how to care, at this threshold between childhood and adulthood. Start caring now, just as Goknur, Paul’s family’s international student from Turkey, implied we must when she came to speak to us on Thursday. She told us that the age when girls decide to wear the hijab occurs at puberty. To be adult is to decide how one is going to live, to make decisive steps towards self-representation and responsibility. In Goknur’s case, she chose to become an adherent to her religious and cultural tradition.

So it is that we ask the students here to become adherents. For us, that means having a consciousness about what it is we are trying to do, and committing oneself to the trying. We do this by challenging them to think about their work, and what it means, or could mean. What it says about their commitment and willingness to extend their own boundaries. We do this by asking them directly: What do you care about? What is important to you? And we do this by asking them to care about little things, like the corner of a shelf, or the edges of a drawing, or having the just-right title for their story. When they care about little things, they will care about big things.

 It was like the other day, when Will decided that, even though circles are difficult to cut in stained-glass, he was going cut a circle because his idea for his stained-glass demanded it. His image was a mandala of a flower, and the center, a one-inch diameter ruby disk, had to be just right. When he came up from the basement, he’d cut his fingers six times.

“Tal, I did it.”

“What, cut your fingers?” I asked.

“No, I cut a circle. Come down and see it.”

In the clay room he showed me the small glass disk —no bigger than a quarter, but something he cares about, something he bled for.

This kind of caring, this attention to completion and integrity, showed up in Paul’s character sketch of his dad, which was nine-and-half pages. In it he uncovered an old memory that expressed deep care for his past, stories, dreams, and his connection to his father.

My dad tells us that when he was little, his dad used to read to him a book called The Wonder Clock. It is a book of stories written in Old English, usually about a poor, clever lad who won a princess for a wife by tricking the king. My dad loved to read us these stories, and the voices he used always went right along with how the story felt.. I remember that every night, my dad would read a story from The Wonder Clock to us, and we would look forward to it, and together we would find the chapter we wanted to hear, and hand the book to my dad, pointing to the page where it began. As he read, we would lie on our backs, looking at the ceiling, and imagining the textured white tiles were a landscape in which the story was taking place. The story would be food for our dreams, happy dreams about what I would do if I met a wise old crane by the riverside.

Hearing his words made us care about Paul, the small child nestled up next to his dad on a sofa. It made us care about an old book, and about his father, about reading at night with parents, and even about old cranes by the riverside. He made us see that childhood is a sparkling, multi-faceted jewel. Or, he simply took enough care to see his own life in such a way.

I think of lines by Seamus Heaney, who wrote a great sequence of poems called “Station Island” in which he imagines the ghost-voice of James Joyce speaking to him and giving him advice on how to write and carry himself. 

       What you must do must be done on your own

       So get back in your harness. The main thing is to write
       For the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
       That imagines its haven like your hands at night

      Dreaming the sun in the sunspot of abreast.
      You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
      Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

      Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
      Let go, let fly, forget.
      You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

This place of doing that Heaney describes is exhilarating. Athletes call it “being in the zone.” Musicians call it being in the “groove.” There is work to be done, certainly, the harness, the work-lust, and a certain amount of danger. But the thing we are looking for is that wild energy, the willingness to throw one’s self into it, to abandon notions of safety and predictability. Then they are no longer listening to me or anyone else. Then they are authoring lives of their own.

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.


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?


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?


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.


“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.” 


“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?


“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.