Books

In April, just before spring break, we’re reading Fahrenheit 451. Gathered around the table for literature class, I wait until the kids are silent and looking at me. It takes time for them to still their minds and bodies.

As quietly as I can and still be heard, I begin. “What we’re going to do is get up silently, without talking, without looking at each other, without clanging chairs or bumping anything–slowly and serenely, like great beautiful herons, and for the next five minutes look at the titles of the books on the shelves. Look for one that speaks to you, which symbolically or metaphorically describes, to you, how you have changed this year, which tells part of your story. Which somehow is a way to explain where you began, and how you got to this moment. If you find one that feels right, let it stay there, and go look at others, and then maybe come back the first one, or chose a different one.”

I look at them and nod, and they get up from their chairs. We wander around the room in silence, as though it were a library or a meditation.  I’m crouched on the floor next to Phoebe. All four of the walls in the classroom, including a closet-like nook in the corner, are loaded with books, from floor to ceiling. We’re surrounded by books of every kind, thousands of volumes collected, bought, donated, or scavenged from books sales and the local dump. Novels, history texts, Bibles, cheap paper backs, shelves and shelves devoted to the Holocaust, Jewish mysticism, art history. Da Vinci’s Notebooks; a signed copy of North of Boston by Frost; the collected photographs of Dorothea Lange. Our walls of books stand in quiet, vehement contradistinction to the TV “parlor walls” in Fahrenheit 451, where Mildred gathers with her “family” each night and wastes away in the empty company of the fantastic swirling colors and the cartoon White Clowns who chop off each other’s limbs.

But our room is quiet, and every book has become a possibility. After five minutes they come back to the table. Henry has Updike’s Rabbit at Rest.  Phoebe has collected four books and the one on top is Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and under that is O Pioneers. Paul has chosen Parting the Waters and How to Read and Why.  Ethan has selected Jarvis Jay Master’s That Bird Has My Wings. Henry Black has picked up The Rise and Fall of Europe.

“So what were you thinking when you picked your title?” I ask.

“I was thinking about how many ups and downs I’ve had this year,” says Henry. “Sometimes I’ve fallen into a pit, and other times I’ve done great.”

“This year I’ve felt like we are pioneers, I mean our class, and we are doing something great together, and sometimes we’re going to an unknown place,” Phoebe explains. These are ideas she’s never expressed. I guess she’s never imagined herself to be a pioneer. Now she is seeing her life as a story, and she’s telling her classmates that they’ve been characters with her along the way.

Ethan explains his choice. “I picked mine because at the beginning of the year I thought I wanted to be someone else, like other people had taken my wings and they were free and I wasn’t. I compared myself to them. They had parents that were together and my parents were divorced and I thought that I wanted their life and they had stolen mine. It’s taken a long time, but I’m realizing I like the life I have and I wouldn’t want someone else’s life.”

Henry Swan points to the book in front of him. “Well, I picked this because at the beginning of the year I thought I was at rest because I just thought that if people didn’t think like me then they had no soul and they were not interesting to me or important. But now I am thinking of them as being much more. And I am not at rest.”

Their understanding of themselves is physical and adventurous and expansive. They know nothing about the contents of what they have chosen, but books, immense with potential, still speak to them.

Once, I asked them if the copy of Fahrenheit 451 I held in my hand was worth anything at all. Was it worth defending?

“Technically, not really,” came one glib reply. “I mean, there are millions of copies of the book.”

“Okay,” I said. I then ripped the cover off and threw it on the table and proceeded to tear the pages out like chunks of hair until the floor around my feet was carpeted with Bradbury’s words.

“Stop, stop!” Sarah shouted. She was frantic and wild-eyed. She spent the whole lunch under the table gathering the pages and taping them back into order. Yes, this was not the last copy of the book in the world. But she believed in preserving the man who wrote it and the lives inside it.

In Fahrenheit 451 Montag pronounces to Clarisse: “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.” His bluster is but a disguise for his ignorance. He knows the names, but does not know the meaning. Nor does he know himself, at least not yet.

My students carry their tattered books in backpacks. They leave copies on the table. They listen to the book read to them on tape, hunched on the floor against a shelf, head-phones on, book in hand. Our class copies have eight or ten names written on the inside cover, going back fifteen or more years. The pages are marked, highlighted, worn and folded over. Notes, stars, exclamation points, and arrows fill the margins. Sometimes they leave secret notes in the pages for future classmates. This is an awesome book! Pay attention! For the time they have them, their books are living things.

***

Griffin presented his project on revolutionary photographs. He showed us the mushroom cloud taken after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. We took fifteen minutes to study and discuss an image of Hitler striding up stairs alone at a rally in Nuremberg. Then he had us look at Lange’s epic photo, “Migrant Mother.”

He asked the class to practice looking by spending five minutes observing the photo, and he asked each of us to identify any noteworthy details. They don’t know a lot of the history, or that the migrant mother’s name was Florence Owens Thompson, nor that she had just sold the tires of the family’s car. Only a handful of them know what the Dust Bowl is, or about the conditions of California migrant workers in 1936. They don’t know that the bundle in her lap is an infant whom she had been breast-feeding just moments before.

But they see so much. They have eyes, and they are not afraid to use them. Given something beautiful, or mysterious, or heart-rending, and then given time, they will work to make sense of it. They don’t know the narrative or the context, but they are not afraid to inquire, suppose, venture, posit, wonder, or speculate. They use the evidence before them. Her ragged clothes. The tentative touch of her fingers on her lips. Her children’s head’s hidden. The tight cluster of human forms. The strength and fear in her eyes. The clarity of her brilliant irises.

Later Lange gave a brief history of the picture.

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

When I read Lange’s quote to them, they listened. There was a story and it confirmed what they already sensed. The children eating birds they killed, the tires sold, the frozen vegetables, the tent the family lived in—to know the context made the picture more potent, more cutting.  Perhaps they became the children, or saw their own mothers, or, fleetingly, remembered the bountiful food in their own warm, sturdy homes.

The picture becomes a portal. They encounter books and images as Lange approached the migrant mother, as life approaching life. In this manner do my students enter the history of the past and the stories of their own lives. Books are steps and handholds, cairns and signs. The Confessions of Nat Turner. The Turn of the Screw. A Moveable Feast. I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Diving Into the Wreck. A Book of Luminous Things. It is a fantastic menagerie, the wall of whispering mirrors. Mansions are before and behind them, beckoning. They are up to their eyes in words.

 

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Preachers

The other day Sydney, an eighth grade girl in my class, presented a project on the 1961 Freedom Riders. The leader of those freedom rides was John Lewis, now an esteemed U.S. Congressman, so Sydney gave us some background on his life.

When Honorable John Lewis was a little boy, she told us, he worked on his family’s farm, in Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers, and little John was in charge of the chickens. He took care of them like they were his own children. At night he would read them stories from the Bible, which was the only book his family owned. If a chicken died, he conducted formal burial rites. His family gave him the name “Preacher.”

If John Lewis were a child again and in my class, I would do everything in my power to come to know him. I would learn about his farm and his parents and his nine brothers and sisters. I would ask him about the barn and about his chickens, and I would want to know all of their names. In the mornings, when we gathered around the big table in our classroom, I would want to know what was happening with the chickens. How were they doing?

“What stories did you read to them last night, John?” we would ask.

And if we were so lucky, he would tell us how he had read Exodus or Revelations or Psalms, and how well the chickens had listened. “Which stories did they like best? Did they pay attention?” Maybe he would smile or tell us a funny story about the bantam rooster that kept crowding up and blocking the light from John’s lantern. Or maybe he would not laugh at all, because taking care of his flock was his god-given calling, and that was serious business.

In time we would begin to know something of the special soul of that child, and of the strange, sad, and beautiful world that produced him. We would put him aloft in our orbit and some days he’d circle around the class. Other days, the class would circle around him. The more we got to know him, the more we would come to see that he, like all children, had a soul worth knowing.

John Lewis is not the only historic figure who spoke to farm animals. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland and as a child he preached sermons in the barnyard, imitating white ministers and held forth before his master’s pigs, calling them “Dear Brethren.”  He, like John Lewis, took his chance to speak where he could. He found his audience. He sharpened his tongue. He acted in the sphere of his influence, in the space given, and there learned to make words sing. Through this imaginative act  he, like Lewis, shaped an identity that would probe, disturb, and shape the world.

***

Many of our students keep chickens. As far as I know they don’t the birds bible stories, but they do care deeply and we occasionally hear stories from about what’s happened lately out at the coop. One recent morning, as Creed told us about the weasel that had attacked his chickens the night before, he began to cry. The class listened quietly, respectful of the rawness of his feelings. Yes, he said, he was sad for his chickens; but he was equally upset that he had yelled at his little sister, and blamed her.

“But I was wrong to yell at her because it wasn’t her fault,” he said, as he wiped his hand across his eyes. “It was the weasel’s fault. But I was so upset and mad I wanted to take it out on something and I blamed her.”

At the end of the school day, as the kids rushed to pack their bags, he asked if he could skip soccer practice—because he wanted to go home immediately so he could bury his chicken and say “I’m sorry” to his little sister

***

Our students, like all children, like Creed, are tender and full of feeling. At our school we place the emotional lives of children at the center of our pedagogy. John Keats’ said to “School an intelligence, and make it a soul.” When Creed cried about his chickens, and talked about his regret for how he treated his sister, he was revealing his self even as he simultaneously formed his self. We saw in the crystalline clarity of his tears, his words, and actions the evolving shape of his soul. His inner life and his outer world—life beyond the confines of school—became part of the life and meaning in school.

This past winter, we were on the school’s annual overnight cross-country ski-trip. Twenty-seven adolescents and three teachers traipsing for thirteen miles through the trails of Ripton and the Green Mountain National Forest, up into the woods of Mount Moosalamoo.

At the day’s end we gathered on our sleeping bags in a ragged circle in the lodge at Blueberry Hill. We talked about the day, about being tired, about doing something hard, about the beauty of the winter woods, about encouraging each other, and what it meant to be together away from home and away from school.

Then it was time for the daily poem. Hannah had signed up, even when there was so much to remember, like extra layers and socks and gloves and food and hot tea for the thermos. No, she had not forgotten the poem.

She held a sheet of paper in her hand.

“So it’s pretty long, but I practiced so that I could read it well,” she said.

“You practiced it?” I asked.

“Yeah, last night I read it to my bunny.”  Her classmates laughed and smiled at this, and though she is a serious girl, she smiled too.

“You read it to your bunny?” I asked. She was attentive to preparation, yes. But there was something so marvelously childlike in the image of her at home the night before, reading a long poem to a Chinchilla Rex who, in his furry oblivion, perked his ears ever so slightly as Hannah practiced her words.

“So,” she began, this poem is by Langston Hughes, and it’s called ‘Let America Be America Again.'”

When she began reading, it was clear how she hard had worked.  There was a sharp edge to her words, and the cadence of Hughes’ lines, their anguish, their propulsive motion and cumulative power, filled the room. Outside the windows it was dusk in the mountains, the snowy fields purple and frozen, but this poem of freedom and unreached potential cried out before us.

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

The words glowed with oracular power, as though the spirit of Hughes walked among us, reminding us of what we might forget. Hannah arrived at the last stanza. We the people must redeem/ The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers,/The mountains and the endless plain—/All, all the stretch of these great green states—And make America again!

Again I looked out the window at the snow-covered meadow and the arched back of Mount Romance. And I wanted these children, who read poems to rabbits and wept for their chickens—to make America again.

***

Long ago, I had a student who sang to a family of fox pups that had been born at the edge of her family’s meadow. From the woods she sang Arlo Guthrie’s “Pickle Song,” and the ears of the pups perked up to hear, “I just wanna ride my motor-sickle.” Another student constantly spoke of her childhood dream of having a dog’s tail. She didn’t want to be a dog, she just wanted to have an actual furry tail that would protrude from specially tailored pants, wagging joyfully at the world.

“It’s the only thing I ever wanted or dreamed about when I was little,” she said, with deep-seated conviction and bright eyes.

My own daughter spent the entire summer of her fourth year walking on all fours, because she was, without question, a puppy. We might think that the notion of children wanting to be animals, or speaking, preaching, or singing to them, is quaint and charming and nothing more. Perhaps, though, a deeper dream is being manifested, that the presumed walls between us and the world do not exist. There is imagination and there is magic. Children can believe it. But adults are mostly blind and deaf to it. Our currency becomes work, accomplishment, or financial gain; our language transactional or manipulative or violent; ur egos centered on pride or status or domination. If we look at just last week’s news: our nation’s speech comes in 140 character tweets. It’s most eloquent and powerful expression falls from the sky in the form of 59 Tomahawk missiles. Our most convincing statement? The Mother of All Bombs.

***

At morning meeting a few weeks ago we were discussing the news. Griffin raised his hand and wanted to know why the courts had blocked Trump’s Muslim Immigration Ban, and how the ban would effect people in our state. Some of the kids pitched in what they knew—that dairy farms in Vermont, which form the soul of our state, would be deeply effected. Some students chimed in about families they knew of, or Jamaicans who have come to Addison County for forty years to pick apples in autumn. Eric, our science teacher, had been to a protest that weekend, after ICE agents had been conducting random traffic stops in Montpelier.

“I brought this poster back, you guys,” Eric said. The poster read, “We all belong here. We will defend each other”  He pinned the poster to his white board in the science room, and I thought of the painted ply-wood sign hanging over the door in the school basement, a  quote from Mother Teresa. We belong to each other.

***

A few days later Rosemary spoke up in meeting. “I was at youth group last night,” she told the class. “And there was a man who came to speak to us to talk about the immigrants who are working in Addison county. And he read us these quotes from the bible.” She pulled out a sheet of paper and begin to read.

“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) 

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” (Zechariah 7:10)

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Rosemary’s reading was the perfect bookend Hannah’s. Two girls authoring their souls, holding us between them, existing on an exalted plain, tethering themselves to belief, taking a stand with no need for personal gain, far beyond unholy machinations of politicians desperate for the win.

You should have heard it. I would have given anything to have you there, seated at the table, free of the raging compulsions and the ceaseless need for affirmation, ready to listen. You would have heard voices sprung from deep wells of compassion and understanding. This was not the false power of launching cruise missiles as a show of moral authority, but the authentic power of human aspiration.

Creed wanted to protect his chickens. John Lewis wanted to school his chickens and ennoble them with the teachings of Jesus. Rosemary took as her lesson the Golden Rule, and then taught us. Hannah made Langston Hughes’ dream live again in the Green Mountains. The words of my students can not yet stop bombs from raining down on foreign nations, nor protect, nor give succor to the frightened immigrant farm-workers of Vermont. But these children, they speak and act from a lucid sense of what is right and just. With deftness they lift the veil. They do not see the world, or chickens, as alien. They see them as they see themselves. They are preachers of the word, believers in belonging, embryonic shepherds in a dark time.

After the Election

I am, generally speaking, not that excited about or interested in arguing or debating political issues in school. Over twenty-six years I have found that the kids have a lot more work to do in understanding themselves before they can get a clean grip on the issues of day, particularly large and massive external ones like geo-politics or private, intimate ones, like abortion rights.

But from time to time events in the world beyond the school and the Green Mountains find their way to the big room table. Events arrive with  the kids in the days after, suddenly looming larger than the projects we’re working on or the problems we’re trying to solve.  Sept. 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, Obama’s election, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Sandy Hook shooting, and so on. At other times, we’ve had to face, collectively, life-changing events of our classmates—the death of a parent, divorce, someone leaving the school. These occasional events, whether close or removed, effect us all.

With regard to 2016 presidential election, the issue for us teachers was how to seize the opportunity when the events of the world come out in the classroom. Most teachers will shy from wading into conflict. They don’t have time or support to get off the curriculum track and to respond to life and events as they happen.  A good teacher, or a lucky teacher, will discard the day’s plans and wade into the conflict to extract the gold—this can be done so long as students are encouraged to be themselves, speak from their own lived experience, and not parrot slogans or propaganda. They have their own truths, and a teacher’s job is simple: help them find those truths, and help them be articulate and courageous in expressing them.

Due to the nature of our particular state, Vermont, and due to our particular community, and our peculiar school, we have, for better or worse, what could appear to be a homogeneity of political perspective. For the sake of diversity and learning, I often wish it were otherwise. But we are what we are. From where I stand, then, the most important thing to do is to go as deeply as possible to the place that transcends the politics and gets us closer to ourselves.

I had the opportunity to spend four hours thinking about it all this morning after November 8. I had to drive up to St. Albans, near the border of the U.S. and Canada to get an emergency travel documents for our class trip to Montreal, having discovered around the time the first returns from North Carolina were coming in that my passport had expired last May.

Mostly what I thought about was I might say when I got back to school. This is what teachers do. Even when we are living our lives away from school, we are thinking about what to do in it. We speculate about what the kids might bring in; or how to use what is happening in the world or our lives to best effect. What to say? How to respond? What direction to go? What to open up? 

I knew they’d be thinking and feeling about the election. They’d be trying to make sense of it. I had my own thoughts and feelings to negotiate. I was also mindful of not wanting to press my own feelings too deeply into the classroom. It’s one thing for kids to absorb and live with their parents’ political views. It’s another to have a sometimes passionate and unhinged (for lack of a better word) teacher filling you up as well. My presumption was that their feelings would be variations of their parents’ feelings. And if the parents or adults around them were feeling particularly upset or or elated, they would be vessels for those feelings as much as, if not more than, their own.

So when I got to school in mid-morning, I didn’t say anything. I tried to stay busy. I asked the kids how meeting had gone. I sensed the kids were kind of in a state of shock, though they were busy with math and science and working at the big table in my classroom. I filled out my Fantasy Football sheets. I made a two drafts of a stained-glass plan. I organized a pile of papers and read a student’s story. I talked to Donna and Mia about the upcoming trip to Montreal. I asked Wren what she was doing.

“I’m reading this book and looking at the pictures,” she said. The book was a massive coffee table book called This American Century, and had nothing to do with anything she was currently learning about.  “I’m feeling kind of panicked about the election. My parents are really upset and I’ve already cried three times this morning. But this book is a good distraction.”

“Are you upset about the election?” I asked.

“I’m more upset about my parents, because they are really upset,” she said.

There was a kind of subdued pall over the school. Griffin walked into the big room.

“Are you okay?” he asked, looking at me.

“Not really,” I said. It was thoughtful of him to notice, to ask. The kids here do that all the time.

But at lunch things appeared normal. A low intensity game of tackle football on the Doug Walker Field, the unprepared quarterback standing calmly while receivers tried to get open. A game of Battleship in the Math room. In the science room Eric and his classes had been building a model watershed. There was a kiddie pool on top of the science room tables filled with mud and moss and a small, turbid body of water.  An aquarium pump was drawing muddy water out of the “lake,” which was then pumped up so it could dribble out of a foot-high peak of mud, where the waters began their meandering path back through little rivers and to the lake again.

After lunch Hannah presented her Freedom and Revolution project on Slavery. She began it by having us all crouch down in the fetal position under the big room table while she read a poem about slave ship captains throwing captured Africans’ corpses overboard to sharks to lighten the load. This was her attempt to make us feel something of what it was like to live through the Middle Passage, to be stowed away under decks in a terror of coldness and pain. Catherine and Rosemary remained under the table for the whole project, taking notes, believing that if they were really going to experience history, they were going to have to do it for two hours, not three minutes.

Hannah showed pictures of runaway slave posters; a former slave whose back was a network of raised, finger-thick welts from repeated whippings. She read from journals and decrees. And she played work songs and read us The Promised Land, Romare Beardon’s short story and accompanying images of his paintings illustrating Harriet Tubman’s life.  Hannah was particularly passionate about telling us how Harriet had gone back to the south nineteen times to bring more slaves to freedom. “She could have just escaped and been done, but she kept risking her life to go back, go back to the terrifying place she had run from.”

At the end of the day we had a few minutes left before cleaning up. I felt a need to give them another view of the election through another adult’s eyes. It is one of the privileges of having these charges before us that occasionally we get to say how we feel about the world. And one of the ways they make sense of the world is to hear adults talking about it. I have come to feel that this is part of what makes our school special—we have a community which supports and trusts the teachers enough to know that having those teachers wholly and soulfully express themselves beyond curricular matters is not just acceptable, but good.

Though I am not squeamish about expressing or talking about most things, I try to avoid spewing my political views (though I am sure the kids have a good sense of my position). But I wanted to say things to them that I would have said to any group of kids, no matter what their political persuasion or feelings about the election.

I told them that I remembered how my mother had wanted my father to not vote for Nixon, because her brother had fought in Vietnam, and she was angry that Nixon had said he’d end the war but had expanded it secretly into Cambodia and Laos. I thanked Griffin for asking if I was okay. It told them that him asking that mattered. I told them that I was upset. I told them that that did not make me right, because those who voted or felt differently than me felt they were just as right, and their voice counted as much as mine. I told them that I could not really effect how millions of people voted. And while I might have argued and debated and read and written and studied and hoped prior to the election, there was not a whole lot to be done about it after the fact. Instead of moping, I told them that I had decided I was going to live more determinedly in my sphere of influence.

“Sphere of Influence” is a term we’ve been kicking around in the school all year. What can we do in the space we are in? What powers do we have to act or change or do good? Even on the first day of the school year, Wren said that the flag she had to fly was to learn to live, rather than leave—to face all that life gives or throws at her, and to not run or surrender, but to go straight into it. Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth, as Kind Lear said. Catherine had talked about how we have to live and love completely and be for each other, even in the face our imminent doom. Sam had told us that we had to keep waving to those we love, even when one day they would not be here to wave back—because giving that love is the difference between making the world a good place or leaving it bereft.

I had all these ideas in my mind. My words were simple. We have things to do here. We have ideals and flags for which we stand: Every day we are trying to create the world—which is to say our school, or our homes, or families, or maybe a team or other group to which we belong. We spend our days in a school founded on kindness and love; on asking questions; laughing; listening; understanding the nature of courage, sacrifice, and revelation. We live in a school which believes the more you know about someone or something, the more you come to love them or it; a school and a corps which, as we are reminded by the sign over the classroom doorway, dwells in possibility.

You have a feeling of how you want the world to be, I told them, so you have to be that. You think the world needs kindness or love or tolerance? Then you must be those things. We know how we feel the world should be and we are learning that and we are learning how to love each other and that is what we are going to do. We have school trip to go on and you are going to have twenty-five friends that you are coming to know that you are going to be frolicking with and bumbling around the streets and learning with. And we are going to the Holocaust Museum where we are going to learn about what humans can do to humans and also how beautiful and courageous humans can be, and how a people can survive and keep their souls intact.

We have stories to write which, after you’ve written them and after we have heard them, we will understand how particular and beautifully complex each of us is, and how each of us comprises an amazing universe. We have a play to write which is going to be filled with all the things we are learning, and nothing can stop that either, nobody or no election. 

My sphere of influence is with you, I said.  I teach you because I like being with people who want to learn how to learn. You see what we are doing, You are learning the difference between a lie and the truth. You are learning that from yourself and each other. And when you can tell the difference between a lie and the truth, you will be armed with the greatest tool you will need to navigate the world. You will get your heart broken, I have had my heart broken, many times before today. When I got my heart broken I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach and everything I believed was true and good was gone or valueless. But I have also learned, and I am learning, that you can’t ever give up on what you believe or value. You have to keep fighting for what your believe is good and right.

And here at school we have the chance to make a little world that is the model of a bigger world. And we have a chance to learn things. We can learn history and we can learn facts. If there is one thing in the world that makes me most angry, it’s people who have a chance to know facts and history but do not respect facts and history and so stay willfully ignorant.  You guys know how a feel about ignorance and not treasuring the chance to learn. So take your chances to learn, to know facts, to be close to history. That’s part of your sphere of influence. Focus on the things you can do. You have the power to keep the cockles of your heart warm, and do things that warm the hearts of others. You have to do what Rose said: keep the wheels of your heart turning. That is how you can make something right.

After I talked Wren spoke up. “This morning I felt like the world was broken and it even seemed like someone had died. But right now, after Hannah’s project, I feel like it will be okay. Right now, it is not slavery. We have come a long way, and look at how history has changed. Things will change again and things don’t stay one way forever.”

Creed raised his hand. “Yeah, even since we’ve been born so many things have happened. We have lived though the election of the first black president and the technological inventions like the smart phone and so many other things will happen, and we don’t know what those things will be. Things don’t just stop.”

I think they were saying—no matter how dark you feel, it won’t be dark forever. And, historically speaking, that’s true. But there’s something else they are coming to learn and feel: they are in history, and they are a part of it. This may have been the first historic moment they have shared on a deeply conscious level. And I believe that must be good—as they will inherit something from us and the moment, and that will teach them, and they will have a kind of knowledge and experience that none of us older ones have known in the same way.

As the kids were cleaning up and gathering their things, Wren came up behind my chair in the big room.  “I am glad I had this school today.”

                                                                                     *    *      *

On Thursday morning we arrived in Montreal at the Holocaust museum. Juliette had prepared the class with a project about the Wannsee Conference, the death camps, and Auschwitz. And I had prepared the kids enter the Room of Remembrance in a state of sacred reflection. They responded with reverence and humility. They looked on the engraved names of infamous concentrations camps; they looked up at the six candles which represent the six million. They looked at a wall-sized list of over five-thousand names of towns, villages, and communities which were obliterated by the Nazis. They looked at the marble column of a destroyed synagogue; at an urn with the ashes of victims of the Holocaust; and the eternal flame of remembrance that burns there.

Then they entered the museum, down the steps into history: the pre-war era of the Weimar Republic, the Rise of the Nazis and the mobilization of a nation through propaganda, anti-semitism, and extreme nationalism; the implementation of the Final Solution, the death camps, the liberation, and the aftermath. The kids were imminently respectful—quiet, reflective, engaged, curious, upset, disturbed. They copied quotes down by Elie Wiesel and Martin Buber. “Tal, Tal, look at this. Read this!” Griffin wrote on a scrap of paper: Not to transmit an experience is to betray it. “I’m going to use that in my project,” he said.

When we emerged from the museum the kids picked up their bags and walked into the lobby. A woman who worked at the museum was standing at the snack bar and watched the NBSers come out one by one.

“I have never seen a group of students come out of the exhibit like that,” she said to me, in state of amazement. “They are so composed. How do you do it?”

“I use oppressive measures,” I replied. 

She smiled. “No, I mean, they are so steady…so focused.”

I am not sure exactly what she was seeing, but I have a guess. She was perceiving something that I think is true, but I can’t ever really prove, because if I try to, it looks like I’m bragging. She was seeing that our students know when it is time to go deep and, with a visible soul, take in what the world is offering.

We headed upstairs to meet a Holocaust Survivor. In this we were also blessedly lucky: there are still survivors to tell us the story. And due to the number of years since the Holocaust, many of those who still alive were teenagers at the time. Our speaker, Paul Herczog, informed us he was almost 90, born in Hungary, and that he was not going to tell us about the horrors, but about the good things that happened—about how he was saved.

He moved from sitting behind a table in a chair to sitting in the front edge of the table, closer, where we could hear him better, and more intimate. He told us his story—a child of a poor family who had never really had a personal experience with anti-semitism until age 15, when his mother had to sew a yellow star on his coat. He cried then, he said, as his mother kissed him on the forehead. He knew the world had changed.

From there he lived an experience roughly parallel to that of Elie Wiesel: put into a ghetto, moved to a transport facility, loaded onto cattle cars with elderly and children; ferried deep into Poland while the front raged in both the east and west; arrival in Auschwitz; surviving the selection; seeing the chimneys; seeing his mother for the last time; slave-labor; surviving starvation; the death of his father; survival on his own; having his life saved by a German Soldier; surviving typhoid fever; and the sheer luck of it all—his awareness that he survived by chance and by the good actions of others.

“It was the older ones who knew the tricks to survive. They helped the younger ones and that’s how we survived.”

He nearly broke into tears at several moments. He steered clear of details of physical suffering or cruelty. He was also full of joy and warmth. He told us that it was good that the teachers were having young people learn about the holocaust. He wanted us to understand that we should not categorize or judge humans—“a German soldier saved my life” he reminded us. He told us he wanted us to hear the good stories. He had great pride in his own specialized knowledge of smaller camp he worked in and the research he had done on it to preserve the history of it. He told us about his connection between the non-Jewish Germans in the village where his father and comrades died, and about his visits there, and his friendship with those in Germany-—non-Jews also— who have taken care of the graves of the Jews and have kept alive and honored their memory. He told us Santayana’s quote: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. He told us that those Germans he came to know who tended his fathers grave have become some of his greatest friends.He told us, “I am an old man who lived through this, and I have no hate in my heart.”

No hate in my heart. No bitterness. No clinging to anger, no quest for vengeance, no diminishment of spirit. I see that kind of self-mastery as god-like. But, as I told the kids, being that good is not so hard. “Paul Herczog is good. He showed you what righteousness is. You can be good like that.”

Afterwards he was nearly crying with emotion. “You are so good to listen to my story. You have made my day happy,” he said.

We shook his hand. When he signed our copy  of I Never Saw Another Butterfly his hand was shaking, the hand-writing crabbed and unsteady.  Thank for listen (sic) to my talk. Paul Herczog

                                                                                         ***

Before we went to our rooms in the Hostel we had meeting in the 7th grade boys room, everyone stacked on or crowded under the bunk beds.  Ten or so days before we’d read and discussed Buber’s quote: “All real living is meeting.” When we are at our best, that is what we do.

Hannah said, “After his talk today I realized lucky I am to be alive now. I didn’t have to live through the Holocaust.I have this incredible life. I told myself today while we were walking that I was going to try to appreciate everything that makes up my life.”

Merry said: “Well, I always knew the Holocaust happened, We’ve been learning about the Holocaust but it was sort of a book thing, or something to learn about on Wikipedia. Or it is numbers, like 1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz. But when he told us about not ever seeing his mother again, it felt like something completely different.”

“When you get close to history,”  I said, “it becomes more more intense and real and fascinating. Which is what you were feeling this week—history was close, you felt it, because you were living through a defined historical moment. But what Creed said is also true. So much will happen. History is a long and continuous thing. We don’t know what will happen. You are seeing what one life in history means. Paul Herczog was using his life for good. Paul Herczog was moved today because he felt that telling you his story is what he must do. He was keeping something alive. His duty is to teach you before he dies so that he will have done what he possibly could to prevent another holocaust. And now you inherit that history.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” said Wren, quoting Martin Luther King.

“Today,” Sasha said, “I felt we were making an I and Thou relationship. Sometimes at school it feels like I and It. But here on the trip I felt like we were getting closer to I and Thou.”

Being in the North Branch School the those few days was to understand what I and Thou is. That is something the whole world could use more of—not just in an election year, but eternally, or “unendingly,” to use Hemingway’s word.  And that is what we will keep on making—I and Thou; true living; tracing of that long moral arc with our full hearts.

(an earlier version of this appeared in the North Branch School newsletter “The Current”)

The Cry of Freedom

Above is an image of a 1880 painting by Aime Nicholas Morot, Le Bon Samaritain (The Good Samaritan.) It calls to mind Martin Luther King’s challenge: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

At our school we talk about the questions life demands that we answer. When we read books, we look at the characters as though they were among us, alive in our world. We look at them as models for how to live, or how not to live.

We’re reading The Lord of the Flies at school. On Tuesday, we discussed the forces which beset the band of boys as the island descends into chaos. It becomes clear that Jack Merridew is the one who beats the drums of war and chaos the loudest. He mocks the smallest children. He bullies, threatens, and demeans. He viciously abuses the overweight Piggy. He brags about his skill and power. “I hunt!” he cries. He berates his peers and barks orders at the boys in his choir. He has a single minded-focus on the kill, to the exclusion of survival or simple shelter.. His every act is an attempt to project power and domination. He says the boys don’t needs rules. He brandishes weapons.He is incited by blood-lust, and yet is revulsed by blood. He is brutal, incapable of subtlety, and cares not for human tenderness or the well-being of others. He has turned forever from childhood’s sweet singing voice. His hair grows longer and his vision becomes occluded by the darkness of vines and “creepers.” His every action is to preserve himself.

“Jack is just a twelve year-old version of our president,” said Ben, straining not even the least of his cognitive powers.

Jack, it is clear, is terrified. He’s on the verge of adulthood and yet lacks the courage to articulate what he most deeply feels. He may be able to kill pigs, but he is a little boy, and he needs his mother. He needs a loving, protective embrace. But the only mothers on the island are female pigs. So stabs his knife into a tree, marks the number of kills on his hilt; wears a concealing mask and sharpens his spear.

This boy, who would be a man, will set fire to the island.

***

Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, Rosemary presented her project on the history of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Here, she showed the class, was a man of eminence, courage and conviction, imprisoned for twenty-seven years on Robbin Island, but with an indomitable spirit. Rosemary played an audio of Mandela’s speech made just prior to his imprisonment.  For six minutes we gazed at a still photo of Mandela on the white board and listened. His voice was searing in its authenticity, his language exalted, his morality impeccable. Here was a man who had taken up arms against his oppressor, who was willing to offer up his life for justice and equality; a man who lived to his last breath asking the most persistent and urgent question.

At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela rejected his lawyer’s advice to submit to questioning and cross-examination. Instead, he chose to stand in the box and address the court. His speech was three hours long and laid bare the unconscionable conditions for which Apartheid was responsible. He presented a defense of the A.N.C. and the justification for its actions. Rather than use his trial to protect himself, Mandela used the opportunity, under the threat of death, to do for others, to make a plea for the cause of his nation. In the closing words of his speech, he looked the judge in the eye.

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

This was how Mandela chose to use his life.

Rosemary also taught the class about Stephen Bantu Biko, who organized the Black Consciousness Movement and mobilized South Africa’s urban population when most of the leaders of the A.N.C, were imprisoned. Biko was such a powerful thorn in the side of Apartheid that the government banned him from talking to more than one person at a time; he was not allowed to be quoted; he was confined to the King William magisterial district; and he was forbidden to speak to the media or publish any writings.

But Biko would not stop talking. In 1977 he was arrested at a police roadblock under the Terrorism Act No. 83 of 1967, and interrogated for twenty-two hours by the Port Elizabeth security police. The interrogation took place in Police Room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth and included torture and beatings. He was chained to a window grille for a day. He was driven to Pretoria in a police van, naked and in a coma, where he died from head injuries.

He was powerful because he spoke truths the government did not want to hear. They had to beat him down because they feared him.  Nelson Mandela said of Biko: “They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid.”

Stephen Biko became a martyr. That was how he used his life.

***

It happened that the 27th anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison was only three days after Rosemary’s project.

“If any of you want to be really cool on Saturday you can play the speech again in honor of Mandela being freed,” she told the class.

I decided we ought to have a birthday party for Mandela—a party for Freedom.

After school on Wednesday I went to the store and got green and yellow food coloring and black icing. On Thursday night Rose and I made a cake and decorated it to be the flag of the A.N.C. On Friday morning we hid the cake at school to keep the surprise.

In morning meeting I told the kids that at lunch we were having a birthday party. Throughout the morning they gossiped about whose birthday it might be. Ethan and Creed made a large birthday card for the class to sign, even though the recipient remained a mystery, and even though were not sure who could actually be twenty-seven years old. The kids came inside intermittently, taking breaks from the science Winter Olympics out on the snowy field, where they were building fires, snow shelters, and looking for animal tracks in the woods.

“Whose birthday is it?” they asked, their cheeks red and their eyelashes wet with snow. “Whose birthday could it be?”

Rose and I made party favors. Each student was to receive a folded sheet with a Mandela quote and photo, and the party game was to find the other classmate with same quote. At lunch the kids assembled and we lit the candles. They sang happy birthday as the cake was brought in. They saw the flag of the A.N.C. and understood we were celebrating Mandela, freedom, and Rosemary’s project. Paul, Rosemary’s younger brother, made a wish: “I hope that the goodness he hoped for will become reality.” He blew out the candles, we passed out the quotes, and we took turns reading.

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.

May your choices reflect your hope and not your fears

Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.

Someone put the song “Free Nelson Mandela”on the projector speakers. Rosemary cut the cake and passed out the plates. The music played amid the chaos of twenty-six adolescents, and that was sweet to the tongue and ear.

***

I read Henry’s story that afternoon. A story about the truth of Henry—the inescapable facts of his experience, the grit and texture of his living—his soul’s journey written in 8,693 words, an offering to his peers on a frigid, gray Friday afternoon.

He had wanted to talk about it. Weeks before he had approached me down in the basement at school where I was organizing art supplies.

“I was wondering if I could talk to the class,” he said.

“Let’s talk to the class,” I said.

I gathered everyone that day and he spoke, his voice faltering and unsteady and quiet, trying to explain everything that was weighing on him. He was afraid that he and his mother would be homeless. He didn’t know what was going to happen. There was no real solution. His classmates listened in rapt silence to their friend, who was free and brave enough to take the initial steps into all that he feared.

Now Henry had written a story about it.

He was a scrawny boy who did not like school. He got pushed around. He had trouble potty-training. He had trouble making friends. He cozied up to bullies so he’d be safe from them. He played alone. He made his first tenuous friendships. His parents got divorced. His dad changed genders. He teased his older cousin, who had Down Syndrome. His dad move to Amsterdam. He missed his dad. He tried to forget about his dad. He didn’t understand all the changes. He was confused, and asked questions. He found out he and his mother were possibly going to have to move, because they didn’t have enough money to pay for their house. Whose fault was it that they could not pay for the house?  If he moved, he might have to leave our school, the first school he’d ever loved. Nothing was clear or known, but he was not going to be a leaf shivering in the wind.

His last lines cinched the story. “I’m growing up to being a more aware teenager, who will understand things more. I’m not a four year-old that couldn’t take a proper crap. I have to find my way through the creepers that thicken before me.”

He was becoming the man that Jack Merridew would never be.

Afterwards his classmates applauded, long and loud. Then they put their heads down to write some thoughts, to answer him as best they could.

“Thank you for letting me see you, truly,” said Ben.

“Some days I don’t feel like laughing,” said Merry. “But you make me laugh anyway. You have such a kind heart. You say the important things that need to be said.”

“We wonder if we are being heard,” said Rosemary, “and if it makes a difference. Your story showed that it did.”

“If you have to leave your house you can stay in our guest apartment,” offered Lena.

“Life is messy,” says Hannah. “But that story was beautiful.”

Paul read his note. “You made me realize that chaos is not always impossible to put in order, because you took so much from confusion and turned it into a masterpiece.”

Their first thoughts were most deeply human: to love their friend, to ask what they could do for him, to embrace him. His life was now enmeshed with theirs. The walls between them, however thin, melted away. There was nothing concealed, no mask, no spear. The simple truth let him be known; and to know him was to love him.

Wren, the tallest girl in ninth grade, spoke up after a few seconds of silence when the story had ended. “You know,” she said, “You can always talk to us about these things that are happening in your life, and you definitely do have the right to be mad and confused. You always have the right to feel different feelings towards your family, and you don’t have to be afraid to talk here in meeting to us.”

She, like all of us, was touched by truth, and her words were equally true and powerful. She gave him the gift of kindness and understanding—those depths of feeling our world so desperately needs.

On days like this I love my students, good samaritans all. They have powers beyond compare. In these brief moments, before they depart for adulthood, before they must wear the mask of cold competence and invulnerability, they go into the jagged fractures and the dark tunnels to open up the deeps of themselves. But they are not afraid, because the hold in front of them the light they seek—acceptance, truth, and love. They delight in the snow and cold. They chase tracks of animals in the woods. They dig shelters out of great piles of snow. They lick icing off their fingers and begin to understand the cry of freedom. They lift up their classmate, who navigates the difficulties of life with a good and faithful heart.

At the end of the day I found the pile of notes Henry’s classmates had written to him. In compressed scrawl Oscar’s words read: “You ride life in a masterful way. You are like a glider in the wind.”

I imagine a world where we are so free and bound to each other, where we do what is right because it is right, where our words and actions are governed by our hopes and not our fears. We ask the only question, always and persistently.  What are you doing for others? We try to never hide from the truth. We lift up others nearest us, let them rest on our shoulders. We believe that those nearest us are us. We feel the currents of other lives, open our arms, and we ride with them.

Digging In

Mr. President, I heard your living room is eighty feet long. In Vermont, we have a good laugh about that. We’ll say, “Who all is sitting in there?” I imagine no one ever really sits in there. Those gorgeous sofas so extravagantly arrayed and so empty of bodies.  No one talking about the day, no one snuggled up together to read a book or look at photos, and no fire in the hearth.

We believe in low ceilings and cozy rooms, because it’s easier to heat. We believe in sitting near the wood-stove, because the warmth is real. Looking through the glass at the rolling flames, we remember the effort expended to make that heat. We remember a summer’s work of felling trees, and an autumn’s work of putting the wood up in the shed. We remember bucking logs up in the cooler days of summer; we remember splitting and stacking and seasoning. We bring the wood to the house in wheel-barrows, leaving tracks in the thin cover of snow. At night we bring in armfuls and fill the stove before we sleep. In the morning there’ll be a bed of coals; we’ll scuffle the poker under them, bank them up, and put more logs on to warm the house.

It’s like this. We like small rooms and so we are close to each other. At the Ripton General store down the hill Dick Collitt sits in a rocking chair by his wood-stove reading books he checks out from the library. There’s an aluminum tub of potatoes on a stool behind him. A magazine rack, cheddar cheese in the glass case, local maple syrup on the shelf, penny candy and a gum-ball machine. The beer cooler provides the heat that the little wood stove can’t. Eric Erickson, the town fire-chief, sits in the other chair most mornings, holding his pipe. They talk about the weather, hunting, and the condition of the roads. When I come in to get my mail, they both nod good morning. I pick up a pint of half-and-half and leave a $1.80 on the counter. Dick doesn’t even have to get up.

Our neighbors matter to us. We can’t get along without each other. In the summer we divide our perennials. You’ll find clumps on the side of the road a the end of driveway. Free irises. Zukes and cukes please take.  Along the roadsides we collect wind-fall apples from wild trees and no one minds. Once a week we bring Gary and Donna, our nearest neighbors, a dozen eggs from our chickens. A few weeks later we’ll find a new bag of chicken feed on the porch, along with a tin of molasses cookies. Gary drives his tractor up the hill and tills our small garden patch for us. Another day he comes up with the tractor-bucket loaded with wood-shavings and saw dust—bedding for our chickens. When my dog would run away at the sound of the chainsaw, she’d head down to Dick’s store. A little while later I’d get a phone call: “Tal, I have your dog down here.”

We have chicken-pie suppers at the churches and we have town-meeting. We talk about culverts and how much money to allocate for the support of Elderly Services and WomenSafe. Anyone can talk, and some talk too much. Some knit and never say a word. We follow the rules of order, and everyone has a say. We argue sometimes, over the school budget or the town recycling procedures or whether we need to start a truck-fund for the volunteer fire department. Our town State Representative shows up and he answers our questions directly. We know he cares—his daughters go to the town school, too. We never tear each other down. We don’t vilify or humiliate or denigrate. We need each other, and we have to be for each other. It’s how we survive, it’s how we get along.

Rumi, the 12th century Sufi mystic and poet, reminds us in one of his ecstatic lyrics that our words will be empty if we produce them with no love or wisdom or blood-expenditure. Our words may shine, they may bear our flashing imprint, but they are mere layers of showy gold. What do they say?  What do they buy, give, or make? Such currency has no value because it does nothing but accrue. It is nothing more than glittering iterations of emptiness.

This talk is like stamping new coins. They pile up,
while the real work is being done outside
by someone digging in the ground.

I think of those empty sofas in those preposterous rooms of gilt and marble. And then I hear the crows over the trees. They are calling out, they are doing their work. The small maple trees at the edge of the woods are waiting for spring. The tips of the limbs are reddening. And then I hear my neighbor’s saw through the woods. Yesterday I noticed the tracks he left, heading up the hill through the snow. Now he’s at work, building his wood-pile for next winter.

We hold onto this nearness of our neighbors, and each other.  We treasure the closeness of our living. It’s in the splinters of wood, in the pulsing glow of coals and in the ashes in the pan. It’s in the nest of straw and grass where mice are cozying up in the woodpile.  I know this cold will thaw. The earth will soften. We’ll hear the slice of a spade in soil, the tearing of grass and earth. This is the real work we do. This is how we humbly speak and listen in the small clearings of time. We’ll be planting and digging and collecting kindling. We’ll be cutting tiger lilies and dahlias and filling baskets with pole beans and basil all summer long.

A Gift in a Cigar Box

Mr. President, I just spent a couple of hours in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, one of the magnificent Smithsonian Museums which are, thankfully, publicly funded, in the capitol city of your new employer, the United States of America.

Perhaps you can walk over there someday soon. It’s not too far from where you will sometimes live.

These museums, and the art and history they contain, are concrete signifiers of a great and healthy civilization. When the people and the government together support the arts, they are enjoined in a collective effort to acknowledge and celebrate the nation’s identity. There we see our collective soul realized and reflected. New paths of discourse are opened to show us what we may not have recognized about ourselves. Our national museums of are free and open to everyone; that in itself is symbolic of a democratic impulse towards inclusion, free expression, and open access to and participation in our nation’s ongoing story.

The atrium of the East Wing is dominated by Alexander Calder’s great, final work (Untitled, 1976). It was commissioned specifically for that space and is the visual anchor at the heart of the building. It is massive, and at 76 feet, his largest mobile. It is motor-less and moves only by means of air currents and its is own delicate equilibrium. It is a stunning and magical work which defies expectations and gravity, a celestial motion guided by unseen hands. It appears at once heavy and and weightless, floating as softly as a dust mote, moving imperceptibly under the light pouring in from the glass ceiling. If you ever go there, it will draw your eyes upward, and open you to the possibility of art as a transcendent power.

The shapes and motions of the great work in the atrium set off a range of associations: flocks of birds, moving clouds, sunspots in a bright sky or streaks of light at night, planetary motions, vertebrae, the spinal plates of a Stegosaurus, the massiveness of great and ancient beasts. We marvel at the exquisite ingenuity and imaginative whimsy of this man who began his career simply bending wire to make jewelry.

Along with jewelry, early in his career in Paris Calder became famous for the miniature kinetic circus he fashioned and conducted. Some of his greatest admirers were children. Once, when asked about his popularity, he wrote, “My fan mail is tremendous. Everyone is under six.” And why not?  Children love dinosaurs, planets, animals, the shapes of clouds, and birds, all of which suggest possibility, magic, surprise, and infinitude. Calder’s work somehow embodies all of that.

We entered into an upstairs gallery which was devoted to a variety of nearly 50 works by Calder, spanning his career from the 1930’s to his death. Abstract and figurative, circus figures, wire sculptures, stabiles, smaller mobiles. Moving shadows were cast on the wall as the plates and wire arms made their slow revolutions. It was, to paraphrase Calder, painting with shapes.

In the gallery was a smaller display case holding a variety of miniature works. Whereas the untitled work in the East Wing atrium soars and stuns through sheer magnitude, the smaller works were tender, intimate, potent jewels: smaller maquettes of larger, more famous works, a small cow turned from wire, a doll-sized mobile hanging from the top of the glass case like a weightless bunch of grapes

In these smaller works the great size and power of the universe was reduced, even if for a moment. Like e.e. cummings’ imagined poet, we could believe we might “hold a mountain’s heartbeat” in our hands. Such sorcery is an antidote to super-sized grandeur or boorish monstrosities; to our obsession with glittering towers or the bejeweled crowns of emperors; with celebrity and glamour and power. Simple works of individual creativity stand in opposition to the the world as a faceless machine functioning blindly and without forgiveness or compassion. Small, beautiful things bring the world back to us.

As the As museum goers, all of them adults, walked past the display, they looked upon these works with delighted smiles and curious glinting eyes—with the eyes of children.

The central object in the case was a felt-lined cigar box, propped open and divided into five compartments. Next to the box were the contents—five tiny wire sculptures, stabiles and mobiles each no larger than a ping-pong ball, each made of a painted steel and brass. The work was titled, “Louisa’s 5oth Birthday Present.” Made in 1955, it was Calder’s gift to his wife. 

I imagined him giving her such a gift. He hands her the small box, still redolent of cigar tobacco and cedar. He wants to see her face when she opens it. She lifts the lid and inside is a tiny universe, visions never known before, a gift from his heart to hers. Each of the five chambers contain a humble drama. She places each one carefully on the table, and with a gentle tap sets them in motion, and they begin turning and turning. She looks to him and then back down, watching each one spin, slowly and silently there between them, something of time and existence and the miracle of the two of them swept up in it.

This, she knows, we know, is a symbol of a life shared and made.

A lady standing next to me and looked at it for a moment, then looked up at me.  “How’d you like to get that for a birthday present?” she asked.

I nodded and smiled. Perhaps she meant that his sculpture would have been worth a ton, but I like to think she meant something else—that the gift for Louisa was and is valuable and beautiful precisely because it was not gold or diamonds. It stood for that thing we most crave—something from the heart made for us, made by someone thinking of us, a gift of life and love.

Shrinking the Empathy Gap

Mr. President, sit at the table. Pull up close. Don’t sit in the back with the slackers and scared kids. Get out front and open your eyes.

Sit up straight. Get out your pencil and get ready to write. You might need to take notes. If you think of something important to say, you can write a word or two as a reminder. You have a chance to do something in here. But if you sit in the back, talking locker room talk to some other dumb-ass, posing and whispering, you’re gonna be lost.

Listen well enough to ask a decent question. That’ll keep you engaged and activate any dormant, lethargic neurons. None of us knows everything, and certainly neither do you. Unless you are Da Vinci or Erasmus, you have work to do, so get ready.

I want to tell you about my students. Look at them, right here, next to you and across from you.  Look at them coming in here, ready to learn, open like fallow fields, their notebooks filled with clean paper. Ask them what their what they feel, what they think, what they fear. Ask them about their dreams and hopes. Come down to where they are, deep down, all the way down.

The thirteen year-old girl next to you. She’s got an Emily Dickinson poem graffitied on her binder–it says, “I dwell in possibility.” But like millions of other kids her age, she’s been exposed to language that objectifies, demeans, sexualizes or is otherwise reductive or oppressive. Her exposure to that language does not only come from her own president. It comes up around her in everyday life, from her classmates, starting in elementary school, and on up to college.  She hears it from her friends in high school, she hears it in music, in movies, on the radio, in the news, shouted at her from passing cars.

In twenty six years of teaching 7th-9th graders, nearly all of my female students’ bodies have been rated at one time or another, on and by every scale imaginable, by boys and girls. Before some of the girls have even reached puberty, they have been called cunts, bitches, whores, and skanks. They have been labeled easy, trash, dogs, ugly, and frigid. And boys, as young as eleven and twelve, they are not immune. Fag, gay, homo, retard, pussy. If you’re a boy and a virgin, you’re a fag. You’re lame, you suck. If you have a girl friend? It’s all about, “Have you fucked her yet?” If you have, or you lie and say you have, you’re a stud. If you’re a girl and you’ve had sex, you’re practically a slut. If you’re a guy, you “get some.” A girl? It’s all about whether you put out.

I presume you know all about this. You call it locker room talk, presumably language you use when not in mixed company when you want to impress your friends. But now look at this girl in our classroom. Would you say that in front of her? She is looking at you and wondering what you’re actually thinking. She’s not sure if you know. Here’s what she’s thinking: “You are disgusting, cowardly, and pathetic. Don’t ever talk to me like that. Ever. Grow the fuck up.” But she’s not sure she can even say that out loud.

Children  and teenagers find themselves enmeshed in this with each other because they are scared. Scared about who they are, and scared of who they aren’t. So they toss around the most powerful words they know. For protection, they revert to speech which wounds others, keeps others at a distance. Their words mask the fears that swirl beneath the surface. They are fearful of being small, left behind, rejected, discarded, diminished, used. They are afraid of what others will say or think. They don’t know what others think because others aren’t really saying what they feel.

So they throw these powerful words around like fragment grenades: if they create enough sm0ke and chaos, they might get out alive with their fragile egos intact. But they’ll be running from the wreckage they created, and they’ll never be seen as they truly wish. Maybe they appear strong, above it, over it, but they are running from themselves and the love and tenderness they truly crave.

Certainly, anyone who has gone through adolescence, including you, understands something about this. My students? Well, It confuses them. Sometimes it makes them not want to come to school, grow up, or even live in this world.  They feel even worse about the instances when they themselves have used those terms, or when they have been complicit by standing by in silence.

They, like all of us, want to be loved, and to have a feeling of loving another. They want to be seen and known and understood. But it is frightening to speak of the soul’s most intimate needs.

I am their teacher, and I am are charged with teaching them to wield language effectively, what the Buddhist teaching calls “right speech.” We are teaching them to be more gracious, thoughtful, insightful, considerate, and precise in how they communicate.  Like parents who must teach toddlers to use their words, we are still teaching them to use their words, all the way up through high school.

So when we sit around the table reading poetry, it’s not because I care very much about state standards or students knowing what iambic pentameter is; but because I want them to be able to speak beautifully and accurately, and to be able to distinguish poetic speech from common speech, true speech from a lie, how beauty and truth is expressed through words. If I do it right, then perhaps one day they find their way to their own truths in poetic words.

***

Last week a dozen or so of my students went to see “The Empathy Gap.” The film was described as looking at the ways “cultural messages short-circuit men’s ability to empathize with women, respect them as equals, and take feminism seriously…by exploring some of the key messages about manhood that boys absorb from the culture — that they should acquire material wealth, meet conflict with aggression, harden themselves, suppress all human emotion except anger, and view women primarily as sexual objects — then argues that these messages not only devalue women but also undercut men’s innate capacity for caring and empathy.”

It seemed relevant to our students and these times.

When they came back the next day, they were excited to talk about it.

“It gave me so much to think about,” said Wren.

There is so much to think about. If you sit here long enough, your brain will begin to ache with the awesome awareness that you have so much yet to understand. My students write speeches, stories, character sketches. They write self-reflective essays. When we read Of Mice and Men, I ask  them, “How is this book also about you?” When they read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I ask them, “What did you learn about your own life, and which character are you grateful to have known?”

It’s all very personal. In morning meeting they talk about what happened the night before. My parents fought, and it scared me. I don’t know what i am going to do next year. I sometimes feel lonely. I feel like I am disconnected from my class. I am not sure what is most important to me. My grandfather is going in for some tests and I I am worried about him. I feel like I am being a jerk lately and I am being a shitty friend, and I don’t want to be like that.

You see, when we talk and write and think like this, we are trying to create a new script, one that goes to where we all want it to go, to talk about ourselves are we really are.  But it takes courage to do it, to show or say what is inside and bring it out. It takes courage to say, “You know what, locker room talk is bullshit. I’m not going take part in a lie.”

But when they do that, they are standing firm and authoring their own lives.

We are trying to see the truth of things and each other. I want my students to see the truth inside themselves, and you, too. If you sit up at the table, they will wait for you to take off your mask. And if you don’t, they will ask you, “What do your fear?” If you resist, they will say, “Cut the crap. Show us who you really are.”

In case it’s not clear, this is them practicing the art of empathy and compassion.

It’s also how they bypass what they hate, in themselves and others, which is any inauthentic being. The old script? The one some dismiss as just “guy talk?” Well, they think that script is deranged.

In Of Mice and Men, the kids saw piercingly into a relationship between males founded on love and tenderness, and the explicit admission of the fear of loneliness. The bond between Lennie and George stands in blazing contradistinction to the world in which men must be fierce, cold-hearted, violent, or solitary, seeking the facsimile of love in whore houses. George and Lennie upturn the script and write a new one.

A few days later we were in morning meeting.

“Who’s got the poem to read this morning?” I asked.

Griffin raised his hand. Now understand, Griffin is pretty rough looking. He plays football. he wrestles, he hunts, he lives on a dirt road near a dairy farm. He’s not what some of his old friend might call a “poet fag.” But his heart is as big as a mountain.

“I was thinking about what we saw in that movie the other day,” he begins. “About how guys are afraid to do anything that is, I don’t know, I guess, loving or affectionate. Because they’ll get made fun of.”

He’s taking a while to get to the point, but he’s onto something true and real.

“So I want to read this poem by Maya Angelou. We read it last year and I think it’s important because it seems related to what we’ve been talking about. And I think it’s important for both girls and boys. But I am reading it for myself, I guess to remind me so I don’t forget it.”

Then he read “Phenomenal Woman,” when begins with the lines:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
the span of my hips,
the stride of my step,
the curl of my lips.
I am a woman
Phenomenally.

You’re in the room, and now you’re listening. You’re not sure what you’re hearing. It makes you a little dizzy. You’ve never heard a 14 year old tough kid read a poem by a black woman about phenomenal, uncontainable and undefinable otherworldly beauty. The kids are speaking a language you don’t quite understand, but as you look at their faces you begin to see. They love this poem. They’re smiling when he reads. They applaud when he finishes. Everyone is uplifted. And they love him. They love this phenomenal  moment in which their friend takes the sad, old script—tears it to bits and throws it out the bus window, and then writes the new one.

You sit their wondering what you should do, moving your pencil across the blank page in front of you. You are wondering about this new world. When did it come into being? The poem contains the phrase: my inner mystery. You’re wondering about that. That mystery, what is it? Your inner mystery? Where is that deep-down sun-lit vision you’ve been missing?

The boy you’ve heard read the poem, he’s not lost, he’s not mystified. He’s down inside, deep down. He’s up here in our faces, telling us what’s what. He’s tender and strong, thoughtful and sincere, imperfect but striving, listening and responding. Right in front of you a boy has worked a kind of magic. Angelou’s voice—which celebrates women, every woman—has become his. That’s a gift he gave us, and don’t you see? Now he’s giving it to you.