Hamilton E. Salsich II

         Each summer as I look forward to a new school year, the word “unhurried” almost always comes to mind as a description of the kind of teaching I hope to do. I never want to rush through a lesson, run through a review, sprint through a ‘to do’ list, or charge ahead with impulsive words and actions. I want to do everything the way the sun rises -- with an easy kind of poise. There’s never any need for urgency in teaching English to teenagers. The planet will continue turning whether I cover three or six or zero comma rules in a class period. Our hearts will continue beating and our trillion cells will keep being reborn no matter what happens (or doesn’t happen) in 8th grade English class on Barnes Road. Nothing need be done except with attentiveness and consideration. Flowers can’t be hastened into blooming before their proper time, nor can good teaching be rushed. I must allow each 60 seconds in class to be utterly thorough and satisfying. All the moments in the universe are precious ones, so I may as well slow down and appreciate each one as it effortlessly displays itself in Room 2.

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         Like a good driver, a good teacher stays both alert and relaxed. When driving on an icy road, I have to be watchful for especially slippery sections of the road, but I also have to remain relaxed enough at the wheel to maneuver the car with deftness and flexibility. I have to stay both tense and comfortable. I must be determined, in the sense of being committed to watching every inch of the way ahead, but I must also be open, flexible, and accommodating to whatever the circumstances might provide. I sometimes picture a good driver on a bad road as having furrowed brows (the alertness) but a slight and honest smile (the relaxation). He’s working hard but still somehow taking pleasure in the situation. I picture a teacher in a similar way. Certainly I have to be totally alert to every shade and tone during class. I need to have fifty eyes instead of just two, and a few dozen ears wouldn’t hurt. Thousands of mental and verbal events happen in each class, and I need to be aware of all of them. However, I must always balance my watchfulness with an equal amount of lightness and easing up. Teaching teenagers the rudiments of fine writing and serious literature often resembles navigating a frozen mountain road, and while I’m ever on the alert I also need to be relaxed enough to move the class through the labyrinth that’s always created when free-thinking, restive adolescents come together to discuss the art of speaking from the heart in written words. I need to ‘drive’ the class with the coolest kind of awareness, with an attentiveness that feels like dancing.
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         I hope my classroom – and my teaching – has something special, something distinctive for the students. When the students enter my room, I’d like them to think, “Wow, this place has some style!” We often think of classrooms as drab and dreary places, but does it have to be that way? Why can’t a classroom for teenage English scholars have some panache, some feeling of youthful and street-smart chic? And why can’t a teacher, even an old and wrinkly one, have a little style in his bearing and behavior? Why can’t he wear spry bow ties and impeccably pressed shirts, as much as to say, “Boys and girls, this teacher has some technique”? Why can’t I show a sort of flamboyant confidence and manner, as if to say to the scholars, “This is the way I live, and it’s the way I read and write, too – with style”?

* * * * *

         This may sound strange, but in my classroom I try be more like a verb than a noun. I try to think of myself more as “events” that are constantly unfolding than as a solid, unchanging person who is supposedly responsible for the teaching and learning in the room. After all, nothing in this life is actually stationary or fixed, including me. My cells are continually dying and being reborn, second by second, and so is everything around me in the classroom. The atoms in the air come to my students and me from vast distances, and they’re gone before the class is over. Process is everywhere and stasis is nowhere. In my classroom, I am a new idea every moment, and then a new action, and then another new idea. It happens endlessly, with no pause. It’s verbs, not nouns. Who am I? I am “Laughing” or “Pointing” or “Speaking” or “Smiling”, not a lackluster, cast-iron person called “Mr. Salsich”.

* * * * *

         In George Eliot’s Adam Bede, the author says that, for some people, life is not a task but a sinecure, which is exactly how I feel about teaching. I feel incredibly lucky that, all those decades ago, I was accepted into this profession that seems, at least at this stage of my career, to be more like soothing entertainment than strenuous labor. I love what I’m doing – totally and from start to finish. Even to think about my classes is to get a rush of eagerness and exhilaration. Of course, I do work hard at my lesson plans and paper grading, but it’s the kind of hard work a mountaineer does as he climbs the impressive trails. It’s work, yes, but it’s also gladness and satisfaction. I almost feel ashamed to get a paycheck every two weeks, considering my classes are filled with kicks and cheerfulness of the best kind for a weathered and well-lined English teacher.

* * * * *

         Perhaps I should think of myself as a “convenience” for my students, something that assists them in building a relatively competent and satisfying academic life for themselves. Just as a laptop computer is seen as a convenience for the traveling executive, making her or him a more efficient manager of the company’s affairs, I might consider myself an aid or a tool for my students to utilize as they pursue their studies.  Don’t we surround ourselves with conveniences, and aren’t some of these conveniences exceedingly important to us? If I want to read at night, I have lamps conveniently ready to glow and give good light for my eyes. If I want a drink of water, I have the convenience of the faucet and its faithful flow of water. Conveniences make it easier for us to do essential tasks, and isn’t that what a teacher does? The students want to learn – need to learn—and Mr. Salsich is there to make the task more convenient for them.  Similar to a walking stick and sturdy boots, I’m ready to assist the kids as they climb the trails of literary skills and appreciation. Interestingly, the word “convenience” derives from the Latin word meaning “come together”, and thus perhaps what I’m doing as an English teacher is simply helping my students get themselves together, in order that they might share, discuss, write truthfully, read wisely, smile with satisfaction, and celebrate their fresh and scholarly lives.

* * * * *

         Like most of us, I have always enjoyed being comfortable, and, as a teacher of teenagers, good comfort for one and all has been an enduring goal of mine. For example, I like to think my classroom provides comfort in the form of physical ease and relaxation for the students. Although the chairs are unremarkable and the space is small and commonplace, a few cheerful lamps provide, I hope, a sense of ease and wellbeing, and the recurrent smiles of the old teacher serve to boost the students’ spirits now and again. I almost feel an atmosphere of luxury and indulgence when I enter my classroom, and I hope the scholars can also feel at least a touch of that. In addition, I hope my teaching itself is comfortable, in the sense of being as “large” as is needed or wanted.  We define a comfortable income as one that is big enough to supply all our needs and wants, and I hope my students can experience my teaching in that way, as instruction that makes available all the tools and stimulation necessary for their continued growth as English scholars. A third and elemental way in which I want to provide comfort in my work as a teacher has to do with the etymology of the word. “Comfort” originally referred to bringing strength to a situation (from the Latin “fortis”, as in “fort” and “fortitude”), so when we are comfortable, it is because we feel strong and surrounded by strength. We feel comforted because we know that all is well, which is exactly how I want my students to feel. Whatever happens in English class, whatever their successes or failures may be, I want the students to know that all is well, that they are good and getting better, and that all the strength they need is waiting securely and comfortably inside them.

* * * * *

         Over the course of four decades as a classroom teacher, I’ve slowly come to see that ignorance is as necessary to academic success as good soil is to a garden. Ignorance, you might say, is the fertile soil of first-rate education, for without it no learning would take place. I can’t learn something unless I’m first ignorant of it – unless there is first an empty space in my understanding that is waiting to be filled by awareness and appreciation.  It’s surprising to me that so many people seem to want to conceal their ignorance – to pretend that it doesn’t exist. That’s as foolish as hiding the soil of your flourishing flower garden because you’re ashamed of it, or pretending the slimy mire of pond bottoms isn’t actually the source of every handsome water lily blossom. Out of the darkness of night comes the light of morning, and out of the perplexity of ignorance comes the longed-for shimmer of insight. I’m proud to be, relatively speaking, overwhelmingly ignorant, because it means I have a universe of learning ahead of me.

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The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that extravagance is a quality to be assiduously avoided by my students, and that its opposite, which we might call prudence, is the virtue most needed in their academic enterprises. Extravagance might be defined as just plain wastefulness – the tendency to use resources in a spendthrift and unwise manner. When students write or read, they call upon their resources – mainly thoughts and words – and their duty is to use these resources in a judicious manner. Just as they shouldn’t recklessly fling their money around, so they should avoid using thoughts and words in a hasty and undisciplined way. Of course, it’s not surprising that my students tend to be wasteful with their mental resources in the classroom, when we remember that society as a whole is nothing if not wasteful. A kind of riotous profligacy is a way of life these days, with self-indulgence seeming to be a far more sought-after quality than self-discipline. Growing up in a culture that throws out tons of refuse each day, it’s little wonder that young students don’t mind wasting some disorderly thoughts on an interpretation of a Dickens chapter, or handfuls of superfluous words on an essay. The solution to this wastefulness, this unbridled extravagance, is an uncomplicated but sadly out-of-date virtue called prudence, which one of my dictionaries defines as “the wise use of resources”. It’s that simple, really. My students have a finite number of thoughts and words, and they must employ them in a calculated manner. As is true in the care of personal finances, they will find that this kind of attention to the guardianship of their mental resources will result in much higher profits in their English studies. 

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         Every morning I have to get to a certain place – my school – and I always take the same route. Years ago I learned this route – learned that it’s the shortest path between my house and school, and that it will reliably get me to work reasonably quickly and safely. Now I drive the roads almost without thinking. Because I have faith in the route, getting where I need to go has become an easy and fairly speedy task. I often think of my students as I’m driving to school, for they, too, have destinations they must reach in English class. Each week they must arrive at an understanding of how to construct their next essay, and must make their way, hopefully with grace and aplomb, to the final sentence. Each week they must somehow journey to an understanding of new concepts and skills, and must learn what routes to take through the bewildering pages of poems, stories, and novels.  Week after week, I place a goal, a destination, in front of them, and it is their job to get there – and that, I’ve always believed, is where I come in. I guess what I enjoy most about teaching is simply helping the students “get there”.  Years ago someone told me what roads to take to get to school as efficiently as possible, and, similarly, I try to lay out for my students some reliable routes to success in English class. I don’t necessarily want to make “getting there” easy for the students, but I want to make it entirely possible. When I get in my car each morning to drive to school, I know, without a doubt, that I will be successful in getting there, and I want the students to have a similar assurance when they set out to pick their way through a chapter or steer a course through a complex writing assignment. I’d like them to be able to say, “The goal of this assignment is far off in the distance, but I know exactly how to get there.”

* * * * *

         Sometimes, in the morning before school, I read a few pages from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I find, oddly enough, that it helps me be a calmer and more undisturbed teacher. I think it must be the music of Milton’s lines. As I read in the morning, I feel almost like I’m listening to a Mozart symphony or some easygoing chamber music, and the serenity of the music seems to reside with me throughout the day. As I’m teaching a lesson, I wonder if lines like these occasionally roll through the back of my mind:
“… over all the face of Earth 

Main Ocean flow’d, not idle, but with warme 
Prolific humour soft’ning all her Globe, 

Fermented the great Mother to conceave, 

Satiate with genial moisture …”
In the midst of my occasional feeling of indecisiveness and perplexity during class, do those smooth ‘l’s, ‘m’s, ‘s’s, and ‘n’s of Milton’s make their melodies somewhere inside me, enabling me to flow along more effortlessly with what is happening in class? Do his laid-back rhythms cause my heart to keep a peaceable cadence as I’m teaching? Does a line like “And sowd with Starrs the Heav’n thick as a field” help my thoughts drift along in leisure instead of dashing in a useless hubub?

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“Be lowly wise.”
--The angel Raphael to Adam, in Paradise Lost

         This is prudent advice for a teacher of teenagers. Certainly I need to be a wise teacher for my innocent and often bewildered students, but I need to always remember how vast is the sea of ignorance inside me, from which small fish of wisdom leap only occasionally, and always in a fleeting manner. Sure, I have some knowledge to share, but I must keep in mind that what I don’t know would fill all the oceans of the world. I am not getting any younger (68 and counting), but in terms of insight and discernment I’m still a child, an infant in a very wide and weird world. Perhaps Raphael is telling Adam to be wise in a modest way, to be “smart”, yes, but to also be aware and accepting of his ignorance, because from that “lowly” ignorance can spring, now and then, a spectacular flash of wisdom.

* * * * *

“There gentle sleep
First found me, and with soft oppression seised
My droused sense…”
--Adam, in Paradise Lost

         When I came across these lines one morning before school, I was immediately struck by the odd combination of “soft” and “oppression”, and I began to wonder whether it actually describes what I sometimes employ in my classroom.  Of course, oppression is usually thought of as being heavy-handed and antagonistic, even cruel, but if it’s soft – if it’s dispensed with kindness and care – perhaps oppression can feel light and gracious. Perhaps a softly oppressive atmosphere can actually be advantageous for my students. In Milton’s poem, sleep, a peaceful and refreshing experience, is described as coming with “oppression”, so maybe my many requirements and assignments – the academic oppression I administer to my students – could be meted out with as gentle a touch as sleep employs. I have to be the boss in my classroom, and that means requiring the students to do taxing and sometimes downright oppressive tasks, but if I present and manage the tasks in a benevolent manner, perhaps the students can actually find in them some of the refreshment they find in a night’s rest.

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“The only alleviating circumstance in a tête-à-tête with uncle Pullet was that he kept a variety of lozenges and peppermint-drops about his person, and when at a loss for conversation, he filled up the void by proposing a mutual solace of this kind.”
-- George Eliot, in The Mill on the Floss

         This quote refers to a teenage boy who is bored silly by a visit to his relatives, and it reminded me, as I read it this afternoon, that my youthful, restive students must often be afflicted with a similar sense of tedium in my classes. In his audacious and adventurous stage of life, Tom Tulliver finds his uncle ridiculously insignificant, and I’m sure my students sometimes wonder what in the world a dawdling grandfather like me can offer them in the way of stimulating experiences. Tom can’t wait to escape from his uncle’s dreary company to get on with the natural pleasures of boyhood, and I’ll wager that the kids in my class would gladly trade a discussion about a short story by Fitzgerald for some rousing banter on a zillion topics with friends. However, Uncle Pullet does offer something to soothe Tom’s ennui (peppermint drops and lozenges), and perhaps I also, without realizing it, supply some occasional solace during a tiresome class. After all, I do smile a lot when I’m teaching, and now and then I pull an unlikely joke out of my mental bag. I also laugh, on impulse, probably 20 times in a 48 minute class – wholehearted, honest laughter that possibly makes the mood less burdensome and offers some relief to the students (and me) in the midst of a wearisome lesson. In addition, I have an ample supply of sincere compliments ready to bestow on this or that student, or on all of us as a hard-working group of learners, and honest praise is probably at least as heartening as peppermint drops.

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         One morning, thinking of my students’ struggles with their current essay assignment, I took my copy of Keats from the shelf and went back to this phrase from “Ode to Psyche”:  “… wrung / By sweet enforcement”. I guess I was led to those words because it does seem like my often convoluted and scholarly assignments often require words to be “wrung” from the students, somewhat like my grandmother used to wring the moisture out of freshly washed clothes before hanging them to dry. I recall watching her send the wet clothes through the “wringer” to press the water out, and as I thought about my anxious students toiling over their sentences, I pictured them sending their ideas through mental wringers in order to twist out a few good words. It’s true that there has to be a bit of squashing, smashing, pushing, compressing, and crushing when young writers (or any writers) attempt to force their unfettered and undisciplined thoughts into comprehensible paragraphs. It’s not easy to wring out a presentable essay. It requires some sturdy “enforcement” by my students, but the good news is that the enforcement can be “sweet” – can be as easy on the students as the old-fashioned wringer was on my grandmother’s delicate blouses. She watched the wringer carefully to make sure the pressure was distributed evenly, and the students must regulate the pressure they place on themselves as they slowly roll out their essays. Not too much, not too little – just the right amount of sweet wringing to produce paragraphs as dazzling as washed clothes.

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“Then let winged Fancy wander
Through the thought still spread beyond her:
Open wide the mind’s cage door,
She’ll dart forth, and cloudward soar.”
     --Keats, in “Fancy”

         In teaching writing, I have always faced the daunting challenge of helping the students be both disciplined and free in their writing, both organized and untamed. Surely my students must learn to present their thoughts in an orderly fashion, but just as surely they must allow those thoughts to do a little skipping and cavorting among the paragraphs. The students must write in tidy sentences, but those tidy sentences must have the freedom to occasionally roam around – to be extra long now and then, or to make astonishing statements, or to go off in a group of consecutive short sentences if that seems suitable.  Their writing must wear form-fitting clothes, but it must also be free to occasionally throw them all off and dance.  In the poem by Keats, the word “fancy” probably most closely translates as “imagination”, and, as the poet suggests, I would like to encourage my students to let their imaginations “wander” a bit as they write, though always keeping a firm hold on the reins. There are uncharted territories of thought “spread beyond” my students, and writing is all about roaming out among those far-flung thoughts. When writing even the most formal of essays, the students must “open wide the mind’s cage door” and travel out among the unexplored ideas in the outer reaches of their lives. They must always keep control of their youthful thoughts during the writing process, but that doesn’t imply staying close to home. There’s a world of ideas to wander in out there, and that’s where I send my students each time I assign an essay.  

* * * * *

         When I started as a teacher many years ago, I did not use a still small voice. My teaching voice back then was more piercing than still, more full-size and confrontational than modest and self-effacing. I was a blurter, sometimes a shouter, almost always a loud and strident talker. My teaching was like strong winds and earthquakes and fires. I didn’t understand about the power of a still small voice. Now, after four decades in the classroom, things are very different. I find myself talking to my teenage students almost in a whisper. There’s no clamor, no rough speaking, no blurts and outcries and sudden booming words from me. I walk softly and carry no big sticks. There’s a lot more stillness than clatter. With the quietness and gravity of the atmosphere in my classroom, visitors might think they’re entering a shrine or perhaps a mausoleum.  However, despite (or perhaps because of) the relatively peaceful ambiance, we do, I think, get a lot accomplished in my classes. It’s just that my voice is much quieter than it used to be. My noisy words have turned into something more like butterflies than crows. What I say to the students floats among them, and, who knows, maybe right past them and out the windows. No matter. It makes more room for the students’ unsullied and liberated words.

* * * * *

         This morning, as I was walking down the hall at school, I heard a teacher in another classroom say to her students, “No wandering or chattering”, and, oddly enough, it got me thinking about teaching writing. As I continued walking, I wondered whether that is actually the main message my students get from me in writing class: Don’t wander in your writing. Don’t chatter in your sentences. Just follow the directions, get to the point, do the assignment.  Do my instructions for writing a high school essay sound like a bossy teacher trying to keep recalcitrant students in line?  Do my students feel like their written sentences have to quietly march in a straight line like a class of 3rd graders going down a hall? It’s true that I do give explicit instructions for how to organize and construct an essay, and many specific rules have to be followed, but I hope the students also feel comfortable enough to let their words relax and smile a little in the sentences. I hope my students realize that a little carefree “chattering” among phrases and sentences can lend an enriching amount of seasoning to a prim and proper academic essay. A writer, no matter how formal the project might be, must always feel freer and more spontaneous than students under the rule of a hardhearted teacher.  No matter how many guidelines my students are required to follow, I want them to know that allowing their thoughts and words to amble and prattle a bit as they’re writing could spread some needed life through the paragraphs.

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         When I was a student, I rarely thought, as I sat in class, “Ah, it is good for me to be here.” In fact, I was usually thinking it would be good if I were anywhere but this classroom. When I entered a classroom, I don’t recall ever thinking that I had fortuitously arrive at a magnificent place, or that magical intellectual makeovers could happen to me while I’m in this room, or that I might never forget what occurs in this upcoming class. However, what’s odd is that now, in my well-seasoned years, I do think this way. After spending most of my life in a school of some sort, 44 of them as a teacher, I have at long last reached a point where school is, indeed, an extraordinary adventure for me. What I used to dream about when I sat indolent and bored in classroom after classroom has finally come true: school has become place of renovation and exhilaration for me. I can’t wait to get to school each morning. I can’t wait to see my students walk into my classroom for 8th grade English. I’m often actually downcast when the school day is over. Of course, I do have my bad days at school – many of them – but they’re like rainy days in a year at the Grand Canyon: I’m fairly sure it will be beautiful tomorrow. How did I get to this satisfying place in my professional life? How have I become a more resourceful, ambitious, and keyed up teacher in my senior years than I was as a foolhardy young instructor? Why do I feel younger than probably many of my youthful colleagues? Why do I feel like I’m playing in a sandbox when I’m teaching the poetry of Mary Oliver or the proper use of semicolons? I don’t know, but I do know that, when I’m in Room 2 on Barnes Road, it’s good for me to be there. 

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         I often like to think of myself as a witness in my classroom, someone who watches carefully and can “testify” as to exactly what occurred. This seems to go against the common perception of a teacher’s role – that of an active participant, someone who is too busy guiding and pushing the students to take time to be a passive witness. The teacher, we think, should be a contributor to the class, not a watcher – a doer, not a spectator. If we visited a classroom and saw a teacher just silently observing her students, perhaps for many minutes, we might wonder if she’s dodging her duty. However, shouldn’t a teacher also be a scientist of sorts? Isn’t part of a teacher’s responsibility to study his students the way a scientist studies material under a microscope? How can I effectively plan beneficial activities for the students on Tuesday if I haven’t painstakingly observed what they did on Monday – and how can I observe unless I step back from the action and be a silent witness?  It’s hard for me, though – hard to quit talking and thinking and bustling around the classroom, hard to just stop, get quiet, and look at what’s going on. I’ve never been the scientific type – the kind of person who can watch something for a period of time just to see what it does and how it works. Yet that, I think, is what’s demanded of a good teacher– the willingness to observe the students as carefully and intelligently as a wildlife biologist observes her subjects. I have to learn to occasionally be a bystander, someone who pauses to see what’s actually happening. If I did that more often – if I became more of a witness than a performer – my “scientific” notes would surely tell of wondrous occurrences among the scholars in Room 2.

* * * * *

         One of the definitions of “apprehend” is “to arrest and take into custody”, which suggests to me that the students and I do a great amount of law enforcement work in my English classes. Scenes from old cowboy movies come to mind, where the sheriff rides after a slippery outlaw, over hills and across deserts, and finally lassoes and arrests him. In English class, you might say we, too, are chasing down things that flee from us—themes, ironies, metaphors, interpretations, and such. We vigilantly ride through stories and poems and essays, always on the lookout for the “culprits” – the veiled meanings, the hidden motifs, the subtle undertones and moods. These so often escape our notice when we are reading; they seem to hide among the sentences like the bad guys hid in the rocks in old Gene Autry movies.  My youthful scholars and I are determined, however, to apprehend these elusive details in a work of literature – to hunt them down through close readings and insightful discussions. Like the old-time sheriffs, who were often called “peace officers”, we intend to bring some peace to our literary co-mates and ourselves by uncovering the hiding place of truth in a short story or a poem. We are determined to apprehend the essential significance of what we read, to take it into custody in our minds, no matter how evasive and shifty it might be. We don’t have lassoes or handcuffs, just pencils, paper, and dogged hearts. We’re the posse in Room 2.

* * * * *

         Recently, one of my classes was interrupted for a fire drill, and we ended up not being able to properly finish the class.  Walking back to the classroom, I was feeling distressed about this for a moment or two, but before I reached the classroom, a breeze brushed across my face, and it changed my perspective completely. As I waited for the next group of students, I asked myself whether a breeze is ever “properly finished”. Will the breeze that blew past me come to a neat and tidy end somewhere? Will that particular breeze, at some point and in some place, eventually be completed, done, accomplished, and fulfilled? Will it curl up in the grass somewhere, sighing and settling back and feeling like a skillful and productive breeze that had done its job with utter thoroughness? Of course, these are silly questions, and perhaps it’s just as silly for me to worry about leaving a particular class unfinished. Both breezes and English classes are parts of endless weather and educational systems and therefore they can’t be said to start or finish anywhere. Both the weather and learning are constantly occurring on an immeasurable scale, and passing puffs of air and short-lived classes are simply momentary manifestations of these vast forces. Weather and learning never stop, even though a breeze soon disappears and an English class is dismissed. My interrupted class wasn’t unfinished at all. Like a passing breeze, it was just gone, not unfinished. In the vast landscape of our lives, the class was a fleeting few moments of education for my students and me, and a zillion more moments are still to come. It’s a single, immeasurable process, this extravaganza called education. Nothing ever starts; nothing ever finishes. The breezes of learning are always blowing, even during fire drills.

* * * * *
         Most teachers wouldn’t be flattered if someone used the word  “wandering” to describe what the students were doing in one of their classes, but I’ve grown to appreciate the value of occasionally allowing my students to wander for a few minutes during class – maybe to meander through some pages in a novel or drift back over their essay drafts. I usually think of the work we do in class as focused and product-driven, but surely there is room for the kind of wandering that can lead to unexpected discoveries. When I aimlessly stroll through a forest, I always come across a few surprises, and from time to time I like to encourage that kind of unhampered, directionless wandering in my class.  A discussion about a short story, for instance, could be at its best when it rambles among many topics, stopping here and there when a comment shines especially bright, going down any of countless paths when the way opens up. Re-reading a chapter or a few pages could also be done in a winding, roundabout, laid-back way, sort of the way you might wander through a castle you first visited on an orderly guided tour. You have no particular purpose other than discovery. You’re meandering because you want to be surprised. In my classes, we usually do our academic work in fairly straight lines (following specific directions, doing step-by-step assignments, aiming for explicit goals, etc.), but I try to balance this measured marching with a little unregulated roaming now and then.  Perhaps the students will stumble on revelations the way I often do when I’m ambling through the woods, or when I’m turning down an unfamiliar but appealing street on a bike ride.

* * * * *
         Yesterday I supervised an art class when the teacher was out on a field trip, and, as I watched the kids working on their drawing assignment, I admired what I saw—and wondered why I don’t see more of it in my classes. The art students were totally focused. Heads were bending over papers, hands were clutching markers and moving them with care, and quietness was reigning. Close friends were side by side, yet few words were spoken. All I could hear was the brushing and squeaking of markers across papers and the occasional shifting of attentive bodies in chairs. It occurred to me, with some sense of dismay, that this kind of attentiveness doesn’t seem to happen very often in my own classes. I usually see more vacant looks than intense gazes. There seems to be more lethargy than passion, more daydreaming than concentration. I don’t mean to put myself down completely, because my students are always quiet and well-behaved, and I know there are times of curiosity and focus in my classes – but I’m afraid it happens intermittently, whereas I’ll wager it happens regularly in art class.  What I saw there today was kids doing art. They weren’t listening to a teacher drone on about participles or semicolons; they were listening to their own inner voices telling them precisely how to move the markers, and they were moving the markers. They were engaged. They were absorbed in work they enjoyed, and when the period was over, many were disappointed. They had enjoyed doing art, whereas in my classes I’m afraid the students do “listening to the teacher” more than they do English.

* * * * *
         Driving along one of the picturesque roads in my part of the country one autumn day, I noticed some leaves sailing along in the blustery wind, and I began wondering if I could teach like that. I sensed an appealing kind of insouciance and liberty as I watched the leaves toss and tumble in the air.  They were going wherever the wind took them. If I could imagine the leaves as people with feelings, they would be people of the most relaxed and carefree type – people who know that resisting harmless forces is a wasteful and hopeless pursuit. I wonder if I could teach like that. I wonder if I could relax my guard more often, loosen up a little, stop trying to control every millisecond of class time, drift a little with whatever wind of learning is currently blowing in the classroom. I come to class each day with a comprehensive and detailed lesson plan, which is certainly important, but I wonder if it sometimes acts like a cumbersome anchor that keeps me from letting the students sail with the power of whatever we’re discussing or doing. I’m always thinking about the next step in the lesson plan, when perhaps I should be paying closer attention to the gust of ideas that’s just now swirling among the students. Maybe my lesson plans, ironically enough, keep the class and me tied to the dock instead of sailing on the open waters of learning. Leaves aren’t teachers, of course. Leaves have no choice but to follow the wayward winds, whereas, I, as a teacher of teenagers, must make many choices each day. I guess I hope I can occasionally choose to raise anchor in English class and catch the good wind passing by, come what may.
* * * * *
         As I was listening to a Brahms quartet the other day, once again enjoying the way the melodic themes weave their way through from start to finish, I thought about the “music” of my English classes. The artistic quality of the piece by Brahms derives, in part, from the way the central melodies are intertwined throughout the quartet. He starts with a theme, comes back to it again and again (though in many variations), and brings the music to a close with a strong final restatement of the theme. This overall unity and coherence helps to make the music an enchanting work of art rather than just a collection of agreeable sounds. On the other hand, I’m afraid many of my English classes are simply collections of activities – nothing close to works of art. I do make careful lesson plans, but I don’t think of them as artistic creations. I more or less outline my goals and objective and the steps we will take to carry out the activities, but I don’t think of myself as creating anything beautiful or enchanting – just a successful English class. However, would it be possible to think of an English class as an art form? Could I “paint”, “sculpt”, or “compose” my classes in such a way that a central theme weaves its way through from start to finish? Could an English class be so beautifully artistic that my students might stand and applaud at the end?  Of course I’m stretching things there – but seriously, why don’t we teachers think of ourselves as artists? Why couldn’t I design my classes instead of plan them? Why couldn’t I – thinking of Brahms – imbed a theme in every class, and make sure the theme intertwines with all the activities? In a sense, I suppose I do try to build in unity and coherence when I make my lesson outline, but only in a very pragmatic way. When I plan my classes, I’m thinking of myself as a teacher, not an artist – as a technician, not a creative designer. Could I change? When I sit at my desk to make a lesson plan, could I picture myself painting on a canvas or composing at a piano?

* * * * *
         Because things that are not seen are often more useful and compelling than those that are, I’ve been working lately on understanding – and developing – the uses of invisibility in my classroom. For instance, one of my criteria for choosing literature for the scholars to read is the presence of invisibility in the pages – the presence of truths that cannot be seen, at least on a first reading. I purposely choose poems and stories that have an aura of obscurity and murkiness, so that the students have to wander in the dark for a while as they sharpen their inner eyesight. I don’t mean that the literature is gloomy – just that the gems and gold in the pages lie hidden from the eyesight of hasty, lackadaisical readers. I’m also trying to appreciate the true invisibility of each of my students. I occasionally fall back into the bad habit of thinking that I “know” the scholars quite well, but the reality is that their true selves are as invisible to me as stars in the daytime. I actually have no working or helpful idea about the nature of the students’ inner lives, which, of course, are their real lives. In that sense, the scholars are invisible to me, a fact that I need to constantly recognize and accept. A final fact that I’m working on welcoming and accepting is the importance of invisibility in the teacher. I would like to be almost as invisible as the wind. Like a wind, I want to stir up the students, blow some new thoughts their way, perhaps utterly whip away some of their slapdash ideas – but like a wind, I want to do it in a secret and concealed way, imperceptibly. I want the voluble, front-and-center, all-controlling teacher to disappear. After a productive class, I want the students to look around (while I’m standing quietly in a corner) and wonder where all those good ideas came from.

* * * * *
         One day I realized, in a flash, that I believe in the value of a little “scrambling” now and then in English class. The flash occurred in the middle of a stirring lecture delivered after school to the teachers at my school, during which the speaker (a well-known consultant) mentioned the idea of scrambling. I don’t recall the exact context of the remark, but he was suggesting, I think, that we need to consider scrambling our sometimes rigid approaches to class sizes, age groupings, assignments, and other areas of our work with students. We need to sometimes toss our best and most hallowed ideas into the figurative frying pan, mix them up, and see what comes to pass. For some reason, the idea – certainly not a new or world-shattering one—turned on a light inside me.  I, who have always taught my students the importance of taking an orderly approach to writing assignments, suddenly began to picture what could happen if they occasionally took a rowdy and riotous approach. What if they sporadically wrote an essay by tossing a bunch of disparate ideas into the frying pan and doing a little scrambling? For example, what if I asked them to write an essay about how Chapter 6 in To Kill a Mockingbird relates to, let’s say, a sock, a bird’s nest, and a puffy cloud? Or what if we picked out three random words from the dictionary, and they had to write a paper relating the words to a Shakespeare sonnet? As I thought about it, my scrambling ideas got even more lawless. What if I told the students to write some kind of paper (their choice) about Chapter 6 in Mockingbird? I could give them some very simple rubrics for grading (evidence of deep and inventive thinking would be at the top of the list), but the rest of the assignment would be left to their best scrambling techniques. Soon I found myself picturing myself preparing my occasional scrambled egg breakfast. Yes, it is a rather haphazard, unlegislated process (a few eggs, maybe three or four spices, and let’s see, perhaps some Tabasco and wine vinegar, maybe some smoked cheese, or maybe not, possibly some leaves of kale), but the end product, as it sits on a plate on my table, is quite wonderful to behold—and eat. Everything got heedlessly scrambled into a perfectly appetizing delight! Perhaps my students, at least now and then, could do this type of scrambling in their writing – just toss words together, add some spicy ideas, swirl it around, and see what the printer prints. It might just be as attractive and enticing as my morning eggs – and maybe, in some cases, more appealing than the time-honored, thoroughly arranged, spick-and-span formal essay.

* * * * *
         As I stood outside looking up at a colorful fall tree during a free period, it slowly came to me that good paragraphs are like trees. I allowed this idea to expand for a few minutes, then walked eagerly back to my classroom and asked the students coming in for the next class to join me outside. We stood beneath the tree as it shook and rustled in the cold wind, and I asked the students if they saw anything in the tree that reminded them of something we have learned in English class. They shivered together and stared at the tree, with its substantial trunk and three main branches and countless swaying limbs and shaking leaves. Soon a girl said, “I guess it’s sort of like a paragraph.” “Yeah,” a boy said, “the trunk is the topic of the paragraph,” and another boy added “and the three big branches are the supporting points.” We trembled in the wintry wind and talked for a moment more about the analogy — a small, quiet girl said all the shivering leaves were like the words in your paragraph that you hope will shiver inside the reader – and then returned to the classroom for a lesson on irony. Every so often I glanced out at the tree as it bent and bowed in the wind, the countless leaves shaking like lively words.

* * * * *
Out for a walk the other day, I passed a beautiful pot of flowers on a doorstep, and it brought to mind the beautiful writing my students often do. You might wonder how good writing can be compared to flowers that have been trained, trimmed, and pressed into a pot, forced to grow where and how we want them to grow, trained to look the way we want them to look – but I actually feel fortunate to receive essays each week that are reminiscent of the pots of flowers my mother used to keep on the back porch. The writing in these essays may not be terribly creative or liberated or dazzling or unconventional, but it is often orderly and clear, and there’s usually some kind of beauty to be found in orderliness and clarity. An art masterpiece in the Louvre has orderliness and clarity, as do chrysanthemums in a back porch pot, as do the simple essays my 9th grade scholars share with me each week. As my mother used to do with her flowers, the students sometimes treat their sentences with great care, sensibly crafting them and placing them in uncluttered arrangements that bring out the distinctive qualities of their words. They gently “plant” them in an essay, you might say, and then they present the essay to me the way you might give a carefully wrapped gift to someone. I haven’t received a pot of flowers in years, if ever, but each week I get dozens of essays, many made up of neatly arranged paragraphs in full bloom before my eyes. 

* * * * *
         As I was enjoying my grandson’s company at a playground, I also enjoyed the look of the autumn leaves scattered on the floor of the nearby forest, and before long they led me to think about the teaching of writing. The leaves were beautiful as they lay in a sodden and confused clutter among the trees. There was obviously no order to their arrangement, no formula to their placement among the trees, and yet they made a perfectly beautiful picture. They were an untidy but lovely jumble. Recently I’ve been wondering, and I got to thinking about it again yesterday, if there might be room for a similar “lovely jumble” in the essays I ask my students to write. I teach them to write well-planned and highly structured papers, but could there be room among the methodical paragraphs for the kind of strewn and speckled beauty I saw in the woods? If the students occasionally scattered words though a sentence the way they might unreservedly spread their laughter among friends, would a reader perhaps sense something special in the writing? I’ve read some beautiful formal essays this year, but none more beautiful than the informal disarray of leaves I saw near the playground.

* * * * *
                  Teaching has something to do with knowledge, of course, but I’ve been realizing lately that it also has much to do with acknowledging.  When we acknowledge someone, we express total recognition of the presence or existence of that person, and, as odd as this may sound, it’s one of the greatest challenges I face as a teacher. Since I come into contact each day with dozens of young people, each with countless impenetrable character traits and each with an inner life as complex as the largest galaxy, it is a daily challenge to fully accept them – to acknowledge them as the infinite miracles they are. It’s easy, when faced with the complexities of teaching so many diverse, multifaceted, and unique human beings, to simply scan them superficially for 48 minutes, working through the step-by-step lesson and largely ignoring the depth and breadth of the lives that sit before me. It’s an easy habit for a teacher to fall into – sort of riding the lesson plan through a class period the way you might ride a jet-ski over the water, while the real lives of the students wait unseen along the shore. Of course, I have a curriculum to teach and goals to meet, but I should be able to do that and also fully acknowledge the inscrutable lives of my students. My students are not machines to be fine-tuned or engines to be tested. They are oceans of ideas, vast mountain ranges of distant peaks and secret valleys, skies of thoughts that never end. Until I acknowledge the immensity of their lives, until I truly acknowledge their inner greatness, until I recognize that I’m dealing with dozens of unknowable human enigmas each day, my teaching will be strictly superficial and silly, like taking a snapshot of the sky and pretending that you therefore understand it.

* * * * *
         I’ve been slowly realizing, over the long years of my career, that I don’t make lesson plans for my classes: I discover them. The idea that I can actually create lessons for my students—can fashion and produce something that didn’t exist before—now seems silly to me. I no longer have this picture of myself as a shrewd and astute educator who can build the exact lessons that his students need to grow wiser. The truth is that I am not a builder, not a creator, not a wise maker of ingenious curricula – but rather an explorer, a hopeful and alert traveler on the lookout for good ideas.  Lesson plans are ideas, and I don’t believe ideas are made – just discovered. They drift through me and around me by the zillions, and every so often I’m lucky enough to notice and collect one that seems fitting for an 8th grade English class. I’m a voyager in a universe of ideas that have been shining somewhere for eons, and sometimes a dazzling one comes into my ken and I set it into a lesson plan. I don’t make the ideas any more than an astronomer makes the stars. We both just watch and wait and hope.

* * * * *
         The other day, at a meeting about students, I threw out the casual remark that a certain student was “inconsistent”, but later I wished I hadn’t been so brusque and blasé about it. As I thought about the comment over lunch, I realized that, at least in one sense, no student is inconsistent. If consistency means a level of performance that does not vary greatly, then all my students are consistent thinkers. They are always thinking – always entertaining thoughts of widespread variety and freewheeling power. While I’m muttering to myself about their inconsistency in paying attention to my lesson, the scholars are being exceedingly consistent in welcoming the multitudinous thoughts (on topics ranging from skateboards to the weekend to – with a bit of luck—my lesson) that waft their way during a 48-minute English class. At the next meeting, perhaps I should say, when asked about any student’s performance in my class, “Oh she’s a very consistent thinker. She’s always thinking. I’ll give her an A+ for that.”

* * * * *
Years ago, I read somewhere that writers in medieval times sometimes did not sign their writings because they believed God had actually written them – and I’ve always found a grain of good sense in that approach to authorship. I’m not a religious person in the traditional sense (I don’t believe in the conventional God who rewards some and punishes others), but I do have great respect for the immeasurable force (whatever name it might be given) that surrounds and saturates this universe of which we writers are a part. When my students write, words somehow come to rest in their essays, but how this happens is a wide-ranging mystery. To take the easy path and say the students’ brains create the words is like saying that clouds create rain. The origins of every raindrop go infinitely far back to the origins of the entire universe, and the origins of the words in the students’ essays are every bit as shrouded in vastness and timelessness. It’s convenient for the students to put their names on their papers, just as it would be convenient to say the bulb creates the light in my desk lamp, even though forces far more immense and complex than a single student or light bulb actually do the creating. 

* * * * *
         I occasionally do a few tricks with my old yo-yo, and I sometimes feel like doing it during faculty meetings, especially those in which we pass judgment and set labels on kids. I’m fairly good at yo-yoing, but I have no skill in judging and pigeonholing people. Who am I, for heaven’s sake, to presume that I can analyze, classify, and label another human being? You may as well ask me to analyze the movements of the stars or paste a label on a cyclone. I know what my students do, but I have no idea why they do it. I can be fairly competent in describing student behavior, but not in branding that behavior, giving it a name, putting it in a category, placing an identifying sticker on it. It’s hard for me to sit in these meetings and pretend that I understand the inner-lives of kids who are as multifaceted as the solar system. Something I do understand is how yo-yos work, and one of these days my colleagues may see me rise from my seat and begin doing rock-the-cradles.

* * * * *
         In the fall, a lot of death is evident in the trees in my part of the country (New England), and, surprising as it may sound, I hope a lot of another kind of death is evident in my English classes. While the multicolored leaves are floating down from the trees outside my classroom, old ideas of a wide variety are, I hope, dying and drifting away inside my students’ minds. Each week, I hope the floor of my student’s minds are littered with layers of old, crinkly, cast-off ideas, because how else can there be room for new ones? Leaves die to provide space and nutrition for new growth in the spring, and used-up, useless ideas must quietly die so that new thoughts can bud and blossom.  It’s an old story in nature that the old must make room for the young, and the same is true for thoughts. And who knows, perhaps dying thoughts, in a way, are just as beautiful as the dying autumn leaves. The leaves show us their best beauty as they depart, and the aged thoughts of my adolescent students may also show some blaze and sparkle as they sail away during an English class discussion. I sometimes picture in my mind the dog-eared, dilapidated, but strangely colorful ideas floating away from the young people as new ideas arrive. I picture myself walking around the classroom, stepping lightly on the refuse of jettisoned teenage thoughts.

* * * * *
         As the years have passed, I have grown increasingly interested in developing a sense of precision in my classroom. I don’t mean a finicky and slavish devotion to nit picking, just a sensible commitment to exactness and accuracy of expression or detail. The word “precise” comes from the Latin word for “cut”, and I would like to encourage all of us (my students and me) to “cut out” the details of each activity with confident meticulousness. As if we are working with high-level artist scissors, each facet of an action should be created with the ultimate kind of attention and regard.  It seems to me that nature works this way. The wing of a butterfly is a model of exactitude, as is the landscape of never-ending stars above us, as are the zillion intricate cells within our bodies. Everything in the wide natural world, from a snowflake to a v-shaped string of geese in the sky, is specific, detailed, and explicit, and we try to aim for that in my classroom. Another word to use would be “accurate”, which I like because it comes from the Latin word for care. I want to promote a sense of caring in my students and me – the awareness that all things need to treated with sincere and compassionate care, including English assignments. When the students are accurate in their work on an essay, they are caring for it – watching over the sentences and nurturing the paragraphs until the essay comes to a fulfilling finishing point.  When they read with precision, they are caring for the ideas and images contained in the words the way they would care for anything special and precious. It’s a good way to live, this caring for things in a precise and conscientious manner, whether in a small English classroom or in our larger, often loose and imprecise lives.     

* * * * *

         I often ask my students to write in a rather formal manner, but I also encourage them to occasionally mix some funkiness with the formality. I want their sentences to be clear and orderly, but also a little jazzy now and then—a bit of glitz and flashiness in the midst of their neat and methodical paragraphs. I thought about this again the other day when I was reading a student’s very tidy essay and came across these words: “Mr. Radley took his pants, messily fixed them up, and placed them primly on the fence.” The phrase “messily fixed them up” took me by surprise. It had a funky feel to it, a strange and distinctive quality that jumped up from the page. It was as if the voice of this girl—who, like all students, is one of a kind – had suddenly and unmistakably spoken in the middle of her spick-and-span academic essay. The entire essay was a model of order and clarity, but there were a number of places, like this one, where the inner flashiness of this student could clearly be seen – places where the words, in a sense, broke the dress code. The writing was prim but also peculiar, stylish but also surprising. It’s a good way to write, I think—sort of like showing up for an interview in a neatly pressed suit and brand new black sneakers.

* * * * *
         At a meeting last night, I’m glad I had a cold and didn’t feel up to participating in the discussion, because by shutting up and listening, I understood how much wisdom existed in these people sitting around me.  Normally, I jump headfirst into a discussion, throwing out ideas almost like punches. To me, group conversations often seem like organized melees, with me right in the middle, throwing my mental and verbal weight around with little restraint. In a typical discussion, I don’t think I very often genuinely listen to anyone else, since I’m too busy listening to my own noisy mind. Last night was different. Because I knew I wasn’t going to talk at the meeting, I settled into a complete listening mode, as if the doors of my mental house were wide open. The ideas shared by the people at the meeting entered my mind with total effortlessness, maybe because they felt a welcoming attitude.  Instead of reacting to the ideas, I simply accepted them. Instead of glancing at them quickly and waving them away, I let them in and took a good look at what they brought along.  What it showed me was how wise all these people were – how really full of sensible and insightful ideas they were. I sat there in an actual state of amazement. If there was this much wisdom in this meeting, how much have I missed in all the other meetings by talking so much that I couldn’t hear the other participants’ ideas knocking on the door? By not shutting up and really listening, how much knowledge did I leave waiting just outside my life? 

* * * * *
         The right and the ability to choose for oneself has generally been considered a privilege that teachers should increasingly bestow on students as they move up through the grades, and I agree – sort of. Certainly I want to help my students develop the ability to look through options on their own and then make an informed choice. That’s a known requirement for intelligent participation in a democratic society.  In fact, the journey from childhood to adulthood might be described as the journey from almost never choosing for oneself to doing it regularly. However, there’s a troubling trace of egocentricity hidden in the phrase “choosing for yourself”, for it suggests that we might be closing our doors and windows and focusing primarily on our own ideas and desires.  It implies a narrow-minded approach to choosing, in which our minds are, figuratively speaking, as tapered and constricted as a narrow window, through which we see mostly our own relatively meager knowledge and our own special needs. Rather than choose for themselves, I guess I would like to encourage my students, and myself, to choose for – and with – others.  I would like us to always remember that any choice affects not only ourselves, but an infinite number of people and situations. In a sense, choosing for ourselves is not even an option, since we are everlastingly connected to the entire cosmos, and whatever choice we make will ripple out to distant, imperceptible shores. You might say we never choose for ourselves, but always for the whole world. Because this is true, I also want to encourage us (my students and me) to choose with the whole worldthat is, with the assistance of all the wise people waiting to help us. The older I get (and I’m 68 now), the more clearly I see that there are countless numbers of learned people who could be of assistance to my students and me in making choices. Since our individual knowledge is downright paltry compared to the bountiful knowledge that flows through the universe, and through the people we meet, my students and I need to be at least as focused on choosing with these people as on choosing by, and for, ourselves. We need to drop the pretense that we can always determine by ourselves exactly what we need to do, and learn to humbly ask for help and direction.  In fact, humility may be the key virtue students and teachers need to develop – the ability to see and take advantage of the never-ending knowledge that resides in others. We need to be humble—and prudent—enough to put a sign outside our door that says, “Come in. I have a choice to make, and I need your wise help.”

* * * * *
         As I was driving hurriedly to meet some friends for a quick lunch today, I began thinking that this is probably the way most of my students read – by hurrying. When they’re reading the latest popular book, they most likely speed through the pages, restless to get to the next exhilarating point in the story. There’s probably very little lingering or savoring when they’re reading for pure pleasure.  Like me rushing to lunch today, my students no doubt rush from chapter to chapter as they’re swept along by the captivating plot. When they come to my English class, however, they have to travel through books in a very different manner. In my classes, we walk through books, sometimes very slowly. I ask the students to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a beautiful forest that needs to be slowly and carefully explored. Just as we probably wouldn’t drive speedily through a national park and then wave goodbye, I ask the students to walk the trails of Harper Lee’s book the way they might walk the pathways of a scenic woodland—with watchfulness and inquisitiveness. As I was speeding my way to lunch, I surely missed countless treasures along the way – the flaring autumn trees, the old-world homes, the meadows with their seed-filled bounty – and I wonder how many treasures my students (and all of us) miss when they race through books like they’re simply streets to take them somewhere. Great books are not streets. The pages don’t take us to some destination. Each page – each sentence and word – is a destination, and only by reading with a special kind of love and attention can we enjoy the destination that arises before us in each and every sentence. In my class, we often linger over one sentence, exploring it the way we might explore a small cluster of flowers along a trail. We often stop to examine the usefulness of a single word, and to marvel at the total suitability of that word in that particular place on the page. As we unhurriedly walk through books in my classroom, it’s often a long and exhausting journey, and as a result, we don’t read as many books in a year as other English classes do. However, what’s important to me is not how many books we read, but how well, how deeply, how lovingly – and I’d give my students and me ‘A’s for that.

* * * * *
         Teachers, including me, often talk about having high expectations for students’ work, but there might also be some benefit in having absolutely no expectations. The word comes from the Latin word for “look”, and when we have expectations of any kind, we are looking for some particular kind of result. We have one specific goal for the students to aim for, and we look for that precise goal and no other. It’s a commendable and often necessary approach to teaching, but we have to realize there’s a certain amount of blindness associated with it. When I’m expecting a specific result from the students, I’m unavoidably blind to the countless other possible results that might arise from their work on an assignment. On an essay, a student’s ideas might parade by me on beautiful sentences, but I might not notice them because of my fixated focus on some other expected result. When I’m looking for a certain flower on a mountain trail, how many unforeseen and startling sights do I miss?

* * * * *
         I recall hearing about a sailor leaving on a six-month deployment who wore a small clearly visible golden bracelet on his wrist at the official departure ceremony. His uniform was squeaky clean and he stood at strict attention as the ship pulled out to sea, but the out-of-dress-code bracelet, a gift from his girlfriend, shimmered in the sunlight for all to see. That’s what I call orderly flair, and it’s what I try to encourage in my student writers. The students must conform to the severe requirements of unity and coherence (the qualities which make it easy for a reader to get a writer’s meaning), but I also want them to be unafraid to show some flashes of flair among their sentences. The sailor wore his strict uniform and the bright bracelet, and the students should feel free to dress up a sentence now and then with a showy simile or a string of multicolored adjectives.  Panache comes to mind here– the kind of flamboyant confidence that allows a teenage essayist to string together a 70-word sentence that moves with evenness and grace. Élan might also describe what I’m looking for in my students’ essays. They must write with tidiness and consistency, yes, but also with style and zest. Their sentences must march to the beat of the assignment, but let there be some clandestine skipping and dancing here and there.  Let them write with clarity, but may the clarity be clothed with young-at-heart flamboyance.

* * * * *

         One afternoon, as I was walking in the park, I was struck by the three-dimensional beauty of a particularly massive oak tree and the vista behind it. I stopped and stared for several minutes, appreciating the fact that my vision could see the depth of the scene – the limbs closest to me, then the limbs further and further back, and finally, in the distance, the immaculate meadow and the many distant trees. I was rather dumbstruck by this great gift I had been given – this ability to see our world in its depth and solidness. I heard somewhere that a new 3-D movie will be released soon, but I have no interest, for my 3-D movies are all around me -- even in my classroom. Unfortunately, I almost never recognize the full value of what’s happening before my eyes as I’m teaching. I rarely stop and recall the fact that there is a kind of dazzling depth not only in the physical appearance of the students and the classroom, but more importantly, in the lives of the students. If the tree and the park seemed vast to me this afternoon, how might my students’ lives appear to me if I could see them in their unbounded immensity and intricacy? I might feel like I should pay admission to see the astonishing 3-D movies each day in my classroom.

* * * * *
         Reading Book XI of Paradise Lost before school one morning, I came across the phrase “conformity divine”, and, thinking about it later, I wondered if that’s what I’m asking from my English students. Conformity, after all, is not always a negative act, one of self-abasement and selling out. In its purest sense, the word simply means fitting into a form – adapting one’s self to a particular method or a specific arrangement. When I dress for school each morning, in a sense I am “conforming”, since I’m fitting myself into forms of clothes that appeal to me – clothes that help me present an appealing “form” both to myself and to the public. If I studied the art of welding, I’m sure I would conform to the methods and strategies of my welding teacher – and I would become a better welder by doing so. Even something as simple as water filling a pot speaks of the naturalness and grace of conformity. As the water flows into the pot, it effortlessly adapts to the shape of the pot, a type of conformity that water has been stylishly performing for eons. I guess I want my students to conform the way water does – naturally and elegantly. When their thoughts flow into an essay, I hope the words fill up the sentences and paragraphs like water fills up a pot, with ease. I hope the students can adjust to the constraints of each writing assignment the way a stream flows easily into narrow channels and then simply spreads out when the banks widen. With water, conformity is always beautiful – “divine”, as Milton has it – and I hope it can be so with my students.

* * * * *
         Like most of us, I was trained to conduct each class on a firm foundation – a rock-hard lesson plan with specific goals and objectives—but over the years I have gradually come to realize that, in fact, there’s never any solid foundation under my teaching, no matter how much I may pretend otherwise.  Of course, in the small picture, the one that shows me in my little classroom with my handful of students, it does seem possible to construct a sure foundation, an unshakable base that will enable us to reach specific and detailed goals.  If, in this small picture, I think of myself as an engineer and my students as malleable materials that can be manipulated to reach certain ends, then yes, I should be able, with my engineering mind, to set up a foundation for each class that will make these manipulations possible. If architects can construct enormous buildings by laying down sure underpinnings, then I should be able to build a successful lesson each day with the same approach. There’s one hitch, however: teaching is all about a much bigger picture, one that involves human beings, and human beings are not buildings. My young students are more like cyclones or skies or shoreless seas than buildings. Thinking I can lay a dependable foundation for a class with living, breathing teenagers is like thinking I can capture a cyclone or organize the sky or measure the sea. It’s a foolish kind of confidence. Yes, I will continue to design careful lesson plans, but it’s like the sailor who sets out to cross the Atlantic solo in his meticulously designed boat: He really has no idea what will happen. I pretend that I know what’s going to occur in each class, and why and when, but the truth is that I’m setting out in a very small boat, with breath held and fingers crossed. The lessons I painstakingly plan are like carefully fashioned good luck charms, and no more. Once class starts, all bets are off, the anchors are up, and who knows where the winds of learning will take us in this spacious universe.

* * * * *
         Since I discovered recently that the etymology of the word “invest” suggests a putting on of clothes (L. vestis, clothing), I’ve been thinking about my classes as a type of investment for the students. If we think of thoughts as the clothing our minds put on, I hope the students can leave each class wearing a brand new outfit of ideas. Hopefully every time they come to my class they can take off an old belief or two and dress themselves in a fresh and stylish one. We might even think of English class as a ritual of divestiture and investiture, in which old ways of thinking are officially taken off and set aside, and new robes of advanced thinking are ceremoniously donned. In this way, the students have a chance to feel special in each class, like they might feel when they put on a startling new shirt.  

* * * * *
         Not long ago, I overheard someone say they were hiking in a forest and soon found themselves “in the middle of nowhere”, and it reminded me of one of my more unusual goals for my 9th grade students: I would like them to feel somewhat lost in each class. I hope they occasionally feel befuddled, bewildered, dumbfounded, maybe even a little frightened by what I ask them to do. If, when we’re working on a new writing technique or exploring a new work of literature, they feel like they’re “in the middle of nowhere”, I say good for them, for now they can have the stirring experience of finding their way to somewhere. We often forget that in order to experience enlightenment we have to first be in darkness – that the pleasure of knowledge can only come after the discontent of ignorance. If my students are never “in the middle of nowhere” when they’re reading a poem, how will they feel the thrill of finding the somewhere of the poem’s heart and soul? In a sense, teaching English, for me, is about creating darkness so the students can better appreciate light. We don’t read “easy” books in my class – books that are totally filled with light – because then no finding, sighting, unearthing, uncovering, or stumbling upon is possible, and aren’t these what learning is all about? I force my students to read indistinct and shadowy books and work their way through foggy essay assignments, because there’s always the possibility of some sudden light ahead. 

* * * * *
         Every so often, the thought comes to mind that my teenage students know more than I do. Of course, being about four times older than they are, I’m more knowledgeable in certain areas (thought not by much, I fear), but in other areas, they are the professors and I’m the humble pupil. Today, for instance, I was supposedly leading the children in a discussion of how to use an online research tool. Fairly quickly, however, I began to have the feeling all of us educators occasionally have, that the canoe of my teaching was rapidly moving into wild waters. I realized, in other words, that I had very little idea what I was talking about. I realized that not only couldn’t I answer the students’ questions about the technology at hand, but I didn’t even understand their questions. Quickly, though, some handy honesty came to my rescue. I simply asked the students, “Can anyone help me figure out how this works?” Quickly a girl threw out a lifeline: “Sure, Mr. Salsich. First you do this …. and then you do this ...” and she proceeded to lead the class (and me) through a speedy lesson on how to make this digital tool useful. As I watched and listened, I noticed that many of the other students joined her in demonstrating its usefulness, and soon I began to feel like I was the only student in a roomful of teachers. I’m not quite sure why, but I felt lucky. I sat back in the chair, relaxed, and took pleasure in the experience – a grandfather being taught by a class of accommodating and erudite teenagers.

* * * * *
         For thousands of years, human beings believed the earth was in charge of the universe and the sun merely one of its satellites, and for thousands of years we have believed that the adult is the only teacher in the classroom and the children the only students—but what if the second belief is as flawed as the first? I actually ponder this occasionally. What if, someday in the future, it becomes indisputably clear that we were wrong in our assessment of how education works? What if it turns out that the young students were actually the best teachers all along, and the certified adult educator was actually as much a pupil as a teacher? Strange is it sounds, is it any stranger than thinking, back in the Middle Ages, that the sun might actually be the center of the universe and the earth merely a minor satellite? Surely that would have been considered a crazy notion, but perhaps not much crazier than the idea that the students might be the finest teachers in the classroom. I’ve seen hints of this countless times. My students regularly teach me (and each other) new truths about the literature we read. I recall, for instance, being in class discussions about poems I thought I thoroughly understood – poems I had loved for decades – and listening quietly as the 8th grade scholars turned the light of their young thoughts on the lines and showed me new doors into the poem. I recall listening with a strange kind of respect and astonishment as 13-year-olds explained a sentence in To Kill a Mockingbird that had always perplexed me -- listening to teenagers unveil for me the meaning of a metaphor in The Tempest -- listening to young scholars explain to their senior-citizen teacher Pip’s adolescent sadness in Great Expectations. Of course, I am the professional educator in my classroom, so I hope I do a considerable amount of teaching, but I wonder who is really the center of the teaching. Is it me with all my years of pedagogic experience and degrees and weighty how-to-teach books and cumbersome theories, or is it the spirited and almost-brand-new people sitting before me in class? Am I the central source of light in my classes, or does the brightest light perhaps come from the youngest people in the room, my teenage students who seem to have nothing but new ideas arising inside them. I recall a famous person saying something about the kingdom of God being found where children are, and I sometimes think the kingdom is in Room 2.

* * * * *
         Each year, as we enter the annual season of giving, I’m reminded of the noteworthy role that giving plays in English class. Each class is really a ceaseless process of giving – a process that happens whether or not my students and I want it to, and no matter what kind of learning (or anti-learning) mood we’re in. In fact, what we most obviously give is our moods. As soon as we enter the classroom, we distribute our moods to each other, giving our facial expressions, postures, and words as surely as we give gifts during the holiday season. Often we give our expressions of cheerfulness, our postures of awareness and consideration, and our words of friendship and decorum. However, if we’re in a harsh mood, then the gift we give each other will be harsh – but it’s still a gift, one we give by simply being present with other people. My favorite kind of giving in the classroom is simply the giving of ideas. My students and I present countless ideas to each other during a 48-minute English class. If ideas were physical objects, you would see us constantly offering each other packages of special thoughts – some brightly wrapped, some casual and unadorned, even some with scarred and scary appearances (but still gifts).  Usually, of course, these gifts of ideas come enclosed in words. From the start of class to the end, there’s a stream of words passing among the students and me like a constant sharing of presents. Each word we speak is filled with extraordinary surprises – the exclusive feelings and thoughts that only we could have created – and they’re wrapped in the distinctive sound of our voices. They’re not always given with tenderness and good cheer, but they are given, because that’s what words do: they give themselves, by the tens of thousands, in every English class.  

* * * * *
“Maggie’s destiny, then, is at present hidden, and we must wait for it to reveal itself like the course of an unmapped river; we only know that the river is full and rapid ….”
--from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

         I make careful plans for my courses each summer, and I make detailed lesson plans each day, and yet, underneath it all, I know the “destiny” of my teaching is strictly, in Eliot’s phrase, “an unmapped river”. To stay with the analogy, making plans for classes is like a river traveler sketching an outline of what he hopes might happen in the next unknown stretch of an unexplored river. It’s comforting, and in some ways helpful, for the traveler to do this, but he has to realize that a large amount of pretending and air-castle-building is involved. In truth, he is totally ignorant of the countless possible scenarios (good and bad) that could lie ahead, just as I am as I make my rosy teaching plans. Of course, there’s some good news in all this, because it brings the quirky and adventurous element of teaching to the forefront. My work as a teacher of teenagers is oddly similar to traveling a nameless river, but that’s part of the pleasure of it. Each day I enter my classroom as I might enter one of Conrad’s steamers on a jungle river, fearful for the bumbling and failure that might lie ahead but keyed up at the prospect of surprising sights and discoveries.

* * * * *

“…the sweet converse of an innocent mind,                
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d.”
--John Keats, in the sonnet “O Solitude”
         I love these lines for many reasons, one of which is that they remind me of some of my English classes. Without doubt, many of my classes over the years have been neither sweet nor “refin’d”, but some of them do bring back memories of gracious discussions and classy ideas. When my students engage in discussions, they try their best to be “innocent”, to use the poet’s word, which, according to its etymology, originally meant  “not hurtful”. I encourage the students to be frank and free in their comments, but never insensitive. Their minds are sharpening in these teenage years, but their words in my class must always be rounded with the smoothness of good will. Actually, many of their words spoken during class discussions are, as Keats put it, “images of thoughts refin’d”, simply because the thoughts which produced the words have been tumbling around in their minds for a time, the way stones tumble in a polishing machine. True, sometimes their words come from thoughts born out of the blue, but often they arise from ideas that have been quietly buffed up in the back-room laboratories of their minds. Even students who blurt are often blurting thoughts that subconscious processes have carefully filtered and purified, sometimes over a long period of time. It pleases me to think that Keats (a favorite poet of mine) might have enjoyed some of my classes, because they have, occasionally, involved “sweet converse”. Thinking of the origins of the word, when the students conversed in those good classes, they figuratively “turned around” toward each other – away from their self-absorbed preoccupations and toward each other, to better appreciate the “thoughts refin’d” – the surprisingly sophisticated ideas – of their classmates.

* * * * *

“We perhaps never detect how much of our social demeanor is made up of artificial airs until we see a person who is at once beautiful and simple; without the beauty, we are apt to call simplicity awkwardness.”
-- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

         When I read these words over breakfast this morning, I suddenly understood what I’ve been looking for in my students’ writing all these years: simplicity and beauty. I was taken aback by the clarity of the insight: all the students need to do to create successful academic papers is make their writing clear-cut and at least somewhat beautiful. When I talk with the kids about writing, I often get over-involved in unnecessarily complex guideline, rules, and requirements, forgetting how simple it is to describe good writing: it’s direct and, you might say, well-dressed. Of course, it’s not always easy to do this kind of writing, but it might be easier, now, to explain what makes it good. Of course, I must remember that both qualities are necessary. As Eliot suggests, anything that has simplicity without beauty, including writing, can verge on clumsiness and dullness, and beauty without simplicity is often nothing more than flamboyance.  I want my writing students to find the lucky combination – the blending of straightforwardness and style. It’s really as simple as that.

* * * * *
“[Maggie] saw it was Dr. Kenn’s face that was looking at her; that plain, middle-aged face, with a grave, penetrating kindness in it, seeming to tell of a human being who had reached a firm, safe strand, but was looking with helpful pity toward the strugglers still tossed by the waves, had an effect on Maggie at this moment which was afterward remembered by her as if it had been a promise. The middle-aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood, whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair.”
-- from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

         I have often been accused of excessive idealism (I happily embrace the description), so my appreciation of this passage will not surprise my friends: I entirely agree with what Eliot suggests about the role older people, including older teachers, can play. I take pleasure in the fact that, at the age of 68, I can show “a grave, penetrating kindness” toward my students. At this point in my life, it’s not a silly, irresponsible kindness, one that simply wants to win over the students and become their “friend”, but rather a kindness that has some weightiness behind it and can occasionally penetrate into the heart of a situation. It’s a kindness, I might say, that wears work gloves rather than kid gloves, a kindness that delivers itself to the students more like strong medicine than a sugary soft drink. In Eliot’s words, I feel like I have, in some sense, “reached a firm, safe strand”, from where I can, indeed, offer a helping hand to the “strugglers”, my somewhat scatterbrained, befuddled, and brave teenage students. Having lived 54 more years than they, I’ve been there, done that so often that I can, to some degree, show the way to these nomadic souls in my classes. Perhaps, as the author suggests, older teachers like me can stand before our students like a “promise” – a guarantee that the darkness can eventually become a little lighter.  She uses the words “natural priesthood”, which might smack of egotism and false pride, but there may be some truth in the idea that a senior teacher can fulfill the role of a “priest”, who, to use the original Greek definition, could be thought of as simply an “elder”, someone who’s been through the wars, survived, and returned to offer instructions and warnings. And after all, don’t these young people in our classrooms need that? In the midst of the pandemonium and dread of these times, don’t they need, to hear words from the enduring veterans of life’s wars, words that carry gravity, kindness, and promise?

* * * * *
“… even the coming pain could not seem bitter,—she was ready to welcome it as a part of life, for life at this moment seemed a keen, vibrating consciousness poised above pleasure or pain. This one, this last night, she might expand unrestrainedly in the warmth of the present, without those chill, eating thoughts of the past and the future.”
-- from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

         My teenage English scholars are probably too young for this, but my hope for them is that, like Maggie Tulliver, they can stay “poised above pleasure or pain” (high grades-low grades, success- failure), and simply enjoy “the warmth of the present.” I have the distressing feeling, as I look out on the students during class, that few of them are enjoying the present. I fear they have already become members of the obsessed-with-the-past-and-future club that most adults belong to. I fear their minds are not on the matter at hand (which, like any present moment, glows with an inner light to those who are enough in attendance to notice it) but on the D or A that might await them on this week’s essay assignment. They are often as far away from my lesson as if they’re sitting in a darkened room fretting about the darkness while a lamp right beside them simply needs to be lit. My hope for them is that they can, at least occasionally, be struck with the understanding that pain and pleasure, success and failure, are eternal partners in the dance of life. C’s and A’s go unavoidably together like tails and heads. Trying to escape from pain or failure is like trying to run away from your feet. Perhaps now and then, my restive students can stop worrying about the past and future and just open their eyes and ears to the lesson of the day, be it about participles or a poem of Wordsworth. If they can simply be what they are – sensitive young people with always “vibrating” minds – they might be able to receive the blessings of English class, as modest and diverse as those blessings might be. They might see that even failure has a flame of insight flickering inside it.

* * * * *
“I wish I could have died when I was fifteen. It seemed so easy to give things up then; it is so hard now.”
-- Maggie, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

         Maggie Tulliver is speaking here of far more important issues than the teaching of English to teenagers, and yet something in what she says starts me thinking about my work in the classroom. In a way, it is hard for me to “give things up” now, at my well-seasoned age of 68. When I was fifteen, I could give up one shirt style for another with hardly a thought, but now I’m into my 40th year with button down oxfords. As a teenager, I was an Elvis junkie one week and a Platters disciple the next, but nowadays I’m approaching my golden anniversary as a faithful fan of Mozart and Beethoven. Fortunately, however, the opposite seems to be true in my teaching. In the last fifteen years, I have found it increasingly easy to abandon old teaching methods. I’ve cast off lackluster, cumbersome classroom techniques as easily as a ship’s crew tosses out ballast to make the vessel lighter and faster. In a way, I am a totally new teacher. My students from the ‘70’s would not recognize this gentle, tech-savvy, quietly adventuresome teacher. I say this not to brag, because I have no true idea whether I’m a better teacher now than I was when I was ranting and gyrating in front of a blackboard thirty years ago. I just know that, unlike Maggie, I can give up old ways of teaching as effortlessly as I give up one bow tie pattern for another, or one all-time favorite poem for a new one. I feel lucky to have reached a point in life where I can do so. It makes teaching English more like a voyage of exploration than an occupation.

* * * * *
         As a teacher, I hope I’m not uninterested or uninteresting, but I have striven over the years to be more and more dis-interested. In fact, it’s been one of my major goals as a teacher – to not be influenced by considerations of personal advantage (one dictionary’s definition). One of the great temptations for a teacher (at least this one) is to think of the work as a personal mission, an opportunity to use special, individual talents to help the students—a temptation I’ve been fighting for 40+ years. For me, the problem with that personal approach to teaching is that I can easily end up thinking as much about my success as a teacher as about the kids’ success as students. At the end of a day, I can find myself admiring the feats of my teaching more than the achievements of my students. No, I want my teaching to be as impersonal as possible – as impersonal as a summer breeze that cools us and then passes by. I want to be disinterested in the sense of not caring whether I made a brilliant lesson plan, or whether the students might think I was a good teacher, or even whether I was a better teacher today than yesterday. Notice all the ‘I’s in that sentence – and that’s where the danger lies. Truly disinterested teachers have lost the ‘I’ in their teaching. They are like the sunlight in the classroom – invisible, in a sense, but universally supportive and reassuring. They know that education is like the great air around us, and they are but small winds and currents passing among the students for a few months and then disappearing.  

* * * * *
          I often talk with my students about the difference between liking a work of literature and appreciating it, and I use various analogies to try to make this clear. For instance, I don’t particularly like the game of lacrosse, but by studying the rules and talking to aficionados, I’m gaining an appreciation for it. Likewise, I wouldn’t choose to spend an afternoon watching skateboarders perform, but, by occasionally listening as students discuss the subtleties of the sport, I’m beginning to appreciate its complexities and nuances. Actually, the word “appreciate” has a monetary connection, as in “the house appreciated in value”, and I often discuss that aspect of the word with the students. In a way, their job as serious readers is to assess the value of a poem or story, and then, you might say, set a price on it. If they owned a skateboard store, they might not especially like a certain board, but they would surely try to understand its value in order to decide on a price and do appropriate advertising—and they’re involved in an oddly similar process in my English class. Whether my students like a Mary Oliver poem or not is beside the point; what counts is whether they appreciate its value as a work of art. What counts is not whether they like the sonnet composed on Westminster Bridge (most teenagers are not huge Wordsworth fans), but whether they can understand why it’s been so highly prized by so many for so long. I’ll take “I understand the worth of this poem” over “I like it” any day.

* * * * *
         This morning I fell in behind a very slow driver on my way to school, and within seconds I was fuming, much the way my students probably seethe when I make them read – or study – a book like To Kill a Mockingbird little by little, paragraph-by-paragraph, sometimes sentence-by-sentence. This morning, as I dilly-dallied behind this unhurried driver, I impatiently wanted to get on with the business of the day, and my students, I feel sure, would like to get on with the plot of Lee’s novel as quickly as possible and then dash on to the next book. I wanted to get to school quickly so I could speedily get to my next goal, and then the next, and on and on, and I fear the students think of reading in the same way. They read a book to get to the end, and then they start another book to get to its end, and on and on. Things are very different in my English class, and I’m surprised I didn’t make the connection this morning. This languid driver ahead of me was like old Mr. Salsich, the infamously slow reader. The driver made me slow way down so I had nothing better to do than admire the unblemished morning landscape, and I make my students slow down as they travel through the pages of Lee’s beautiful novel. Sometimes we even come to a momentary standstill among some splendid sentences, perhaps even park by the side of a paragraph for a full period. “Yikes!” my students must be thinking, just as I was thinking this morning as I meandered along behind a leisurely, perfectly satisfied driver.

* * * * *
         It occurred to me the other day that I am always passing judgment as I read. It’s as if I’m sitting on the “bench” in my courtroom handing down rulings – judging either the value of what I’m reading, or the meaning of it. Similar to a courtroom judge, I am totally focused on my judgments—preoccupied, you might say, with evaluating the worth and significance of the words. It’s like a full-time job when I’m reading – always judging, judging, judging. What I might be missing because of this all-consuming fascination with passing judgment is the important task of simply understanding what the author meant when she or he wrote the words.  This attempt at truly understanding an author’s intent is not an act of judgment, but more an act of listening, of leaning forward and squinting our brows and genuinely hearing what the author is trying to tell us. It’s an act, in other words, of unselfishness – an attempt to look away from our own preferences and beliefs and get inside an author’s intentions. In a time when self-absorption seems almost unchecked in our society, it’s particularly important that we readers learn to turn away from ourselves now and then and pay careful attention to what great writers are actually saying.  One might ask, “How can we know for sure what an author actually meant?”, but that’s not too dissimilar from asking how we can know what a speaker means, someone who’s talking to us at meeting, for instance. There’s only one way, and that’s by attentively listening, both to the speaker and to an author whom we’re reading. It’s all too easy to give up trying to understand a speaker’s intent and just pass a quick judgment on what his words mean to us, and it’s just as easy to do the same thing in reading, especially if the reading is challenging. We can toss in the towel, make a usable judgment, and say, “Oh well, I’m not sure what the author meant, but here’s what I get out of it.”  What I hope to do, both in my future reading and in my teaching of teenagers, is encourage more listening than judging. “Listen carefully to what the author is actually telling you,” might be my advice both to myself and my young literary scholars.

* * * * *
         This year I’m going to try teaching writing with the help of Mozart’s music. It’s often struck me that classical composers must have worked in a somewhat similar fashion to the way my young writers work on their formal essay assignments. When I listen to a Mozart quartet, I hear the main theme developed in various ways, just as I (hopefully) see a thesis expanded and explained in the students’ essays. Mozart comes back, over and over, to the major idea of the piece, and I insist that the students do the same on their essays. One of the most intriguing similarities between classical music and essay writing is the role creativity can play in the “development” part of the composition. Mozart’s themes (opening melodies) are, to my untrained ear, quite plain and unadorned, but he develops them with astonishing inventiveness and zest, something I hope my students can do in their middle paragraphs. No matter how straightforward their main point is, they can develop it with all the inventiveness and originality at their disposal. Seventy-word sentences, ingenious metaphors, long strings of gerunds, short sentences like shotguns – all can be used the way Mozart used his development sections, to play the wildest tricks with the theme and take it out to the most distant  boundaries.  As the essay comes to an end, the students can “recapitulate” the main theme, as music professors might say. The young writers can smoothly bring us back to where they started, with a reminder of the central point of the essay, just as Mozart always brings us back to his opening melodies. In music, this recapitulation often includes a “cadenza”, a virtuosic section in which the soloist can display her or his finest artistic talents, and perhaps I can encourage my students to do the same in an essay. As the paper draws to a close, why not let the young writer loose to do some runs, riffs, fills, and trills?

* * * * *

         The other day, when I was told I would be missing two sections of English class because of some special activities at school, I was initially upset, even a little irate, but luckily I soon remembered that there are innumerable activities that are at least as important as English class. It’s seems preposterous to me that I can so easily fall into the trap of believing that the subject matter of my curriculum is unrivaled in its importance. Where did I get the notion that learning the rule for semicolons is more important than hearing experts speak about the dangers of drugs? What gave me the idea that studying some lines from As You Like It is more important than attending a special musical performance? Where do I come off passing judgments like this – handing down the edict that English class exceeds in significance all other school activities? Actually, in the limitless world of learning, my little lessons and exercises in English class may pale in comparison to millions of other seemingly – to me –  less-important pursuits. Who can say that an 8th grade student might not learn far more from following old roads on a bicycle than from discussing a poem by Maya Angelou? As blasphemous as this may sound, an episode of “Family Guy” might expand a student’s thinking more than writing an in-class essay on irony in To Kill a Mockingbird. Even watching a leaf floating in the wind could create more educational benefits for a student than sitting through a lesson on using adjective and adverbs to make contrasts. I simply need to get off my high horse and open my eyes, because this world offers kids countless learning experiences that rival, and sometimes outstrip, Mr. Salsich’s English class.

* * * * *
         I have often enjoyed comparing my work as a teacher to that of a gardener. Both of us are interested in helping things grow – the gardener her plants and I my burgeoning students. Both of us take pleasure in walking among our charges, admiring the expansion of leaves or minds, and both of us love the times when we can stand apart and marvel at the final product – the unfolded flower petals, the spreading-out minds of teenagers. What I find especially satisfying about this metaphor is that neither the gardener nor I has any control over the kind of final products our work will produce. A zinnia seed will produce a zinnia, and the young people in my classes will become exactly what they must, no matter how much I may think I’m “guiding” them. All the gardener and I can do is prepare the environment, supply the appropriate nutrients, pull the “weeds”, and then … step back and patiently wait. A gardener uses manure to stimulate the growth, and I use my daily lessons. I sometimes spread a few talks about sentence variety among the students in the hope that full-bodied essays will sprout in a few days, and occasionally I scatter advice about revision, hoping it will allow their paragraphs to be healthy and handsome.  What I must remember is that silver queen corn seedlings will become silver queen ears, and my students will become what they are individually equipped to become. All I can do is water, weed, wait, and be amazed.

* * * * *
“It was not till Tom had pushed off and they were on the wide water,—he face to face with Maggie,—that the full meaning of what had happened rushed upon his mind. It came with so overpowering a force,—it was such a new revelation to his spirit, of the depths in life that had lain beyond his vision, which he had fancied so keen and clear,—that he was unable to ask a question.”
-- from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (my italics)
         This passage has nothing whatever to do with teaching English to teenagers, but still, I do see a connection to my daily labors in the classroom. Suddenly, in the midst of a tragic flood, Tom Tulliver sees “the depths of life that had lain beyond his vision”, and I often wonder how deep and complex the life in my classroom is, and how far beyond my vision it lies. Tom had always been sure he knew the truth – what to do, how to do it, what to believe, how to live – and similarly, I’ve always been confident that I know what my students need and how it can best be provided to them. In the novel, out of the blue, Tom understands how ignorant he has been and how much he has been missing, and there are times in the classroom when something renders me silent, something that whispers of profound developments and expansions within my students that I am utterly unaware of. Like Tom, and perhaps most of us, I live on the surface of life, where matters seem relatively unfussy and controllable. I plan lessons the way an engineer designs a machine, telling myself it’s just a matter of putting the right parts in the right place. I don’t actually believe this, but the way I operate in the classroom would suggest that, like Tom, I think achieving success is as easy as following a technician’s design.  When he finds himself caught up in the roaring waters of the flood, the awareness comes to Tom that success comes not from adhering to designs, but from being totally open to what’s happening  -- unlocked to all the greatness and impenetrability of what’s right in front of him. I need to keep Tom’s epiphany in mind as I work with my complex and incomprehensible teenage scholars. These kids are more like boundless mazes than simple machines. I need to respectfully admit that my vision is not nearly as “keen and clear” as I used to believe – that the life in my little classroom is actually as deep and uncontainable as a flood.

* * * * *

“… in the very temple of Delight                
  Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”
--Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”

         Last week, when one of my students was beside herself because of the C+ she had received on an essay (she’s usually an ‘A’ student), I thought of these lines by Keats. This girl normally experiences nothing but success in English class; she dwells “in the very temple of Delight” in my classroom. Laboring diligently on each task and receiving high tributes for her work, she generally knows little of melancholy, which is probably why she suffered so much when she saw her grade. I wish I could help her see (but it will have to come with the passage of time) that, as Keats suggested, failure is the other side of the coin of success, and “sorrow” is on the back of the sign labeled “happiness”. For this girl to think she can only experience triumph in her life is as naive as thinking she can have only sunshine and no storms. The “sovran shrine” of failure makes music as sweet as success does, but this youthful scholar can’t hear it at this point in her life.  She (like me and most of us, I would guess) wants life to be all happiness, but that’s like wanting only in-breaths with no out-breaths. Can’t happen. 

* * * * *
         One morning I happened to come across a photograph in a magazine of an enormous beech tree standing in the middle of an otherwise empty field, and it reminded me, oddly enough, of English class. I realized, as I stared at the picture, that the only reason the tree looked so strong and beautiful was because of the backdrop of the completely empty field.  It may sound obvious to some, but the thought then came to me that the emptier the background, the more clearly visible an object is. Set against this utterly vacant field, the great tree stood forth in all its magnificence. Strange as it might seem, I wondered, as I put the magazine down, whether my English class was empty enough. When I set my daily lesson before the class, is it surrounded by something like an empty field – a setting so plain, you might say, that the lesson displays itself with all its clout (assuming it has some)? Are the students sometimes drawn to my lesson because it seems to stand alone, like this morning’s tree in its spacious and vacant field? I’m not sure where this train of thought is heading, but one idea that occurs to me is that silence is a form of emptiness.  Perhaps occasional periods of silence could be the field in which my English lessons might locate themselves with a certain clarity and even dignity. Perhaps surrounding and permeating a lesson with brief interludes of silence might render the lessons more vivid, more memorable. I’ve often thought, actually, that there is too much “noise” in my classes – not the noise of disruption and inattention, but simply the noise of constant talking. Surrounding a well-planned lesson with so much talk is like surrounding a beautiful tree with a mishmash of brush and saplings. As valuable as the constant talk in my classes may be, it leaves little room for the powerful emptiness of silence. Maybe I should say to the students tomorrow, “We’re going to have a minute of silence now before I begin the lesson on the use of participles to enhance writing. Please try to enjoy the silence.”  Who knows? Perhaps the tree of my lesson might be a little easier to see.

* * * * *

         I sometimes mull over the idea of power in my classes – where it resides and where it comes from. Of course, it’s easy to simply say that power resides with me (because I’m the teacher) and that it comes from my experience as an adult – but that’s just skimming the surface of the subject. Diving a little deeper, I could say that, actually, as much power resides with the students as with me. After all, the power associated with learning comes from thoughts, and who can say that my thoughts are any more powerful than those of my students? I don’t think anyone has yet discovered a way to measure the force of a thought, so it’s possible that the slimmest, most delicate thought of a teenager could actually be as powerful as the thought of a seasoned and sagacious teacher. Going deeper still, is it possible that the power in a classroom actually comes from somewhere outside the students and me? Again, we can dismiss this question by saying that power obviously comes from our thoughts—but where do our thoughts come from? As a teacher, do I personally and individually manufacture my own thoughts, or do I actually borrow pieces of ideas from sources outside me and then merely allow them to come together in new ways? It seems to me that the thoughts my students and I make use of in our classroom come from sources that are spread across the vast distances of the world – sources that are impossible to finally locate with any precision. Power in English class, I guess, is like the wind: who can say where it begins or where it ends?

* * * * *
         One day, when I was messing around with VoiceThread, an online tool I’d been using in class, I came upon a new way to use it, and I must say that it was a somewhat rousing discovery. It sort of made my afternoon, you might say – this find of a hitherto unknown and intriguing method of grading essays using video and audio. I felt like the discovery would immediately help me be a better teacher. It gave me an unexpected lift, sort of like getting a surprise check in the mail or an appreciative note from a parent. Later, I began wondering whether my students occasionally get that kind of lift in their English work. When they’re working on an essay assignment, do they occasionally hit upon a new way to construct a sentence, a beguiling device that might deliver their ideas to the reader in a novel way?  Do they get a little lift when that happens? Do they feel, as I did today, that they want to take a few skips and whistle and sing?  Of course, I hope my lessons can provide them with this kind of lift now and then -- with perhaps some innovative techniques to liberate their writing a bit more. I often think of myself as a juggling coach who shows his students new tricks to perform. Words are far more magical than three balls, and I hope I can impart new ways to juggle them in writing. In their essays, my students can choose from thousands of words, and there are thousands of ways to spin, toss, twist, twirl, and swirl them – and that’s where I come in. Hopefully I can show them a few tricks that will give them a lift, maybe make them want to take a break and prance around their computer.

* * * * *
         When someone asks me “How was class?”, I’m sometimes temped to say, “Wonderful. They’re always wonderful” – but I’m sure I would be misunderstood.  I definitely wouldn’t mean that all my classes are thorough or exciting or successful, for many of them, I’m sure, are the opposite—half-baked, mind-numbing, and hopeless. In 40+ years in the classroom, I’m sure I’ve left behind a long trail of busted plans and broken down lessons. No, when I say that all my classes are wonderful, I’m referring to the word’s original meaning – “full of wonder”. I truly wonder at all of my classes. Even a class that seems smothered by tedium and empty-headedness is worthy of wonder, as in, “What in the world am I doing in this profession?”, or “How did the universe manage to set these kids and me down in this little classroom today?” The truth is that my students – all of them – are deserving of wonder, by the very fact that they breathe and think and smile and see. They often act in ways that befuddle and frustrate me, but that only adds to my feeling of astonishment, for the frustration they cause me comes from their out-and-out inscrutability. I have absolutely no idea who or what they are. I am often lost in amazement at their impenetrability, their mysteriousness. If I frequently look bewildered after my classes, it’s not because a class flopped (thought it well might have), but simply because I’m truly full of wonder, day after day. To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, “Who are these kids? Who am I? What are we doing here?”     

* * * * *
         As the many years of my teaching career have passed (44 and counting), I have steadily become more curious about the peculiar work I’m called upon to do each day. To me, this enterprise of teaching the vagaries of the English language to teenagers has grown more bizarre each year. On most days, when I walk into my classroom I feel like I’m entering a space ship bound for nameless destinations. I basically fasten my seat belt, get my binoculars ready, and hang on. Any Star Trek lovers will quickly realize that this is exactly what makes teaching more and more exciting for me – the fundamentally weird and startling nature of the work. I can’t wait to get to school each day just to see what unexpected things will start happening as soon as the first class commences. Like a scientist in his lab, I am intrigued by what occurs in my classroom – the odd thoughts that arise in my students and me, the strange strings of words that float out of our mouths, the out-of-the-blue expressions that illumine our faces. The older I get, the more full of curiosity I get. Why did I plan this particular lesson? Why did Annie’s words come out in just that way? What dreams is Jason enjoying as he gazes out the window at a traveling hawk?         

* * * * *
         More and more, teaching seems to me to be all about giving – but I didn’t always feel this way. For the first many years of my teaching career, I was more interested in keeping than in giving. I wanted to keep my reputation as a good teacher, keep control of the class, keep the students on the straight path of my lesson, and keep my pride and dignity. Because I was devoted to hanging on, holding on, saving, and retaining, giving didn’t often enter into my thoughts. How can you hold on and give away at the same time? Now – although I’m not sure how it happened – my thinking has gradually reversed itself. Now it seems foolish to me to try to keep anything back in the classroom, mostly because it doesn’t bring any rewards. Holding back brings only feelings of stiffness, tightfistedness, and smallness, and what I want is the opposite –  openness and largeness. After four decades in the classroom, I’m more or less through with holding back. I’m about done with the pride, fear, and self-importance that caused me to hold back for all those years. Before I call it quits, I’m interested in discovering just how big this thing called teaching really is, and I can do that only by giving everything away in each class. For some weird reason, the more I give away, the farther out the boundaries of teaching seem to get, so I’m giving it all away in every class. In Room 2, it’s a totally free yard sale, day after day.

* * * * *
         Yesterday I wrote about being willing to “give it all away” in English class (let go, stop worrying, take risks), but it’s also important that I be willing to accept it all.  Countless odd and unforeseen events can occur in any class, and I need to be open enough to welcome them. I don’t mean I must always like them or encourage them – just receive and be at ease with them. Interestingly, the etymology of the word “receive” – from the Latin for “take back” – helps me to be friendlier to the various distractions and stoppages that happen in class. After all, in my lifetime I’m sure I have created, in one form or another, every kind of disturbance that might take place in my class. In my school days and at faculty meetings, I’ve whispered, interrupted, blurted, looked bored, and steered people away from the topic, so when these things happen during my class, I can, in as sense, just welcome them back. Like boomerangs, my questionable behaviors over the decades occasionally return to me during English class, and I try to greet them like old, innocuous friends. It helps me, in this regard, to sometimes think of myself as a river, and all the weird, irregular episodes and incidents that come to pass during class are merely streams, creeks, brooks, and rivulets that flow harmlessly toward me as I conduct the class.  A river doesn’t resist, and neither should I. Again, it doesn’t mean I should like everything that occurs during class, but at least, like an hospitable but persistent river, I can welcome every side stream, somehow absorb it into the lesson, and just keep on flowing. Rivers know how to turn everything into part of the movement toward the goal, and, at the age of 68, I’m still learning that lesson.

* * * * *
         As my years in the classroom have passed, I have made increasing use of the Alcoholics Anonymous slogan “Easy Does It”. It’s been a revitalizing change for me, because for the first half of my teaching career I might as well have worn a button proclaiming that “Hard Does It”.  In those years I approached teaching somewhat like a soldier approaches a skirmish. Every aspect of teaching seemed to involve an obstacle to be overcome, a resistance to be neutralized, a hurdle to be vaulted. It was hard work – “hard” meaning tense, hectic, and even traumatic. Now, thankfully, I approach my work more like a sailor heading out to sea. When I’m teaching, I often think of my long-gone father, the finest sailor I knew and the man who taught me that “easy does it” on the high seas. Sailing was easy, he said, because you simply let the wind do the work. He taught me not to fight the wind – not to try to control it or manipulate it or resist it – but simply to work with it. Fighting the wind was hard work; cooperating with it, combining forces with it, was, according to Dad, as easy as breathing. These days I often think of him as I’m steering my lesson through a 48-minute class period. Like the capricious winds of the ocean, problems, distractions, and my inevitable mistakes arise and whirl around me, but – remembering Captain Pete – I try to relax and go easy instead of stiffen and fight. As student questions are asked and comments are made, I turn the lesson a little this way or that to take advantage of the energies and interests in the classroom. This doesn’t mean that teaching is easy for me – just that I take it easy as I’m teaching. There are times when I must be firm with a student or a class, just as a sailor must pull hard on the sails in a storm – but I try to be firm in a gentle manner, strong in a kind way. Dad always said a good sailor is both forceful and easy-going, both unyielding and laid-back – an approach that seems to work as well in Room 2 as on Long Island Sound. 

* * * * *
         If we want people to feel relaxed at a gathering, we might say “come as you are”, which is what I sometimes have to say to myself when I get to worrying about my teaching. There are early mornings when I fret and fuss about an upcoming class: Have I prepared enough? Am I ready for any contingency? Am I smart enough to handle this topic? Will I be able to deal with blank and bored faces? Basically, what I’m asking myself on those disquieting mornings is Am I good enough? Can I do this teaching work? Luckily, I usually come fairly quickly to my senses, and often it’s because I say to myself something like, “Ham, just come as you are. Just bring yourself to the class, just as you are, just as the universe made you. The students don’t want a sophisticated computer or a processed and purified technician or a highly polished android for a teacher. They want a generous, whole-hearted, spirited, inquisitive, flawed, and sometimes frightened person to teach them – a person just like them. They want you with all your worries and joys and fears and failures. Forget “dressing up” your lessons with a thousand finicky details. Make a lesson that flies like a straight arrow to a wondrous target, and bring it to class with courage and a little comedy. Walk tall, be bold, and laugh at yourself. And just come as you are.”

* * * * *
         This morning I read Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Latest Freed Man”, and I’m glad I did, because I think it helped to create a rewarding situation in one of my classes.  In the poem, as I interpret it, the man is “freed” because he has “escaped from the truth” and the “doctrine” of things, and later in the day I rather miraculously escaped from the “truths” and “doctrines” we teachers sometimes burden ourselves with. Unfortunately, I occasionally come to class weighed down with pedagogical theories, which makes my teaching, on those days, rather hesitant and halting as I try to figure out how to make the theories work.  Today, however, in a 5th period class (perhaps, in part, because I had read the poem), I somehow slipped out from under that burden, and, like the “freed man”, I saw “the moment’s sun” – the simple amazingness of having a group of perceptive teenagers join me in a discussion of a good short story. For a few moments, all the complexities and obscurities of teaching – all the so-called truths and doctrines—blew away like clouds and I was left with the straightforward strength of a few kids and an old man talking from their hearts. In his poem, Stevens suggests that this strength that I felt with my students is “the strength that is the strength of the sun”, meaning, maybe, that it comes from someplace far deeper and vaster than my little teacher brain. Theories, buzzwords, jargon, and the frantic machinery of one teacher’s mind can’t create the kind of fresh and bona fide excitement my students and I felt today. As the poem says, “it was everything being more real.” In an odd way, I felt, for those few moments, like we were “[a]t the centre of reality.” In Room 2, “[i]t was everything bulging and blazing and big in itself.”

* * * * *
         I would like my classes to be like the poetry in Longfellow’s “Evangeline” – elegant in a simple way. I’ve always enjoyed poetry that hides its beauty in ease and unfussiness, and “Evangeline” does that. The lines are outwardly unadorned—no rhyme, no artistic stunts, just a graceful story modestly told – but somehow the poet conceals genuine beauty in each of the straightforward lines. He cloaks elegance in the plainest and most natural covering, which is what I would like to do in my classes. I wish each class could proceed with the cleanness and neatness of this line: “White as the snow were his locks, and his cheeks as brown as the oak-leaves.” There’s nothing tricky in that line, and I hope there’s nothing tricky in my teaching. The poet speaks with openness and simplicity, and I want my teaching to work in a similar way. Ironically, it takes hard work to create poetry that’s beautiful in a simple way, and the same is true for teaching. The word “elegance” derives from the Latin word meaning “to choose”, which suggests that both the poet and the teacher, if they want to create true elegance, must carefully choose the arrangements of their words and lessons. Elegance doesn’t often just happen; it comes about because someone takes the time to thoughtfully select, mix, match, arrange, and polish. Longfellow did that in the writing of “Evangeline”, and I would like to do that in my 8th grade classes. Each class a plain but handsome poem: that would be a goal to aim for.

* * * * *
         I have a friend who enjoys advising me to “lighten up”, and I appreciate his reminders, because I tend to carry my responsibilities – including teaching – as if they are dreadfully burdensome loads. The task of teaching teenagers how to read deeply and write stylishly often makes me feel like I’m hauling a heavy weight, and I usually drag the weight home with me each night, and sometimes even lug it around my apartment on weekends. Strangely, I think I secretly enjoy this feeling of being the overtaxed but devoted educational laborer. The heavier my teaching responsibilities feel, the more seriously I take my profession, and myself. Subconsciously, I probably think of myself as a superman of some sort, a stalwart champion of young people, a valiant man who’s willing to make great sacrifices for his students. It’s precisely this pompous, humorless attitude that thoroughly exasperates my friend . “Lighten up, Salsich!” he will say. He’ll then remind me that I’m merely one infinitesimal breeze in the great wind of my students’ education, that what I can teach them is like a tiny drop in the endless ocean of learning, that I’m every bit as ignorant as they are, just in different ways, and that if I dropped dead today, their academic lives would sail wonderfully on without me. And then he’ll offer his most important advice: “Laugh at yourself, Salsich. Laugh at your preposterous self-importance. Laugh especially when your teaching falls flat on its face. Lighten up and laugh – and then maybe you’ll finally be on your way to being a half-way decent teacher.”

* * * * *
         When my own sense of mediocrity seems to be pursuing me in my teaching work, I sometimes remember an old tale about a woman who is being chased by demons. In her attempts to escape, she arrives at a cliff. She spies a vine hanging over the cliff, and climbs down on it. As she hangs there, hoping the demons above won’t find her, she looks down and sees demons waiting below, and soon she notices a mouse nibbling away at the vine she’s clinging to! Next, however, she sees a bunch of strawberries growing near the vine. She smiles and reaches out to taste the luscious berries. I enjoy this story partly because there are many demons involved in teaching English to fidgety, befuddled, and brooding teenagers, not the least of which is the worrisome feeling that I’m simply a middling, run-of-the-mill teacher. That particular demon seems to enjoy harassing me almost on a daily basis. However, I try to remember the strawberries. No matter how bad things seem to get, no matter how barely so-so my teaching seems to be, there are always some things to celebrate. There’s the boy who smiled when I said his comment about a poem helped me to understand it better. There’s the girl who spoke brilliantly in a discussion after weeks of a dismal kind of silence. There’s the parent who simply said she was glad I was her son’s teacher. When the devils of discouragement are on my trail and I’m hanging over the cliff, I always look for the strawberries to reach out and taste.

* * * * *
“… an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony…”
-- Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey”

         Reading these lines again one morning, I thought of the harmony I occasionally feel during English class. It doesn’t happen every day, of course, but there are classes now and then when everything seems to flow as smoothly as the River Wye in Wordsworth’s poem. In those classes, whatever we do and say seems to be precisely what should be done and said. Notebooks open quietly, pencils move effortlessly, thoughts are tossed among us like balloons, and the period comes to an end as effortlessly as a river rounds a bend.  Some of this harmony, I suppose, can be traced to good planning, but a lot of it is as natural and unplanned as winds moving among trees. Honestly, I have no real idea where this kind of concord comes from. Wordsworth attributed it to “a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things”, and perhaps that spirit occasionally passes among my students and me as we carry on our English work. Wherever it comes from, I feel lucky to be “surprised by joy” like this now and then (to quote another Wordsworth poem). One moment I’m waiting to start class, and the next moment I’m floating with my students on a friendly and perfectly-balanced 48-minute English lesson.  

* * * * *
“But, Lord! when you come to think of yourself, you know, and what a game you have been up to ever since you was in your own cradle, and what a poor sort of a chap you are, and how it’s always either Yesterday with you, or else To-morrow, and never To- day, that’s where it is!”
-- Dickens, in “The Holly-Tree”

         This sentence, in one of Dickens Christmas stories, often starts me thinking about the “Teaching English” game I play during the school year. Actually, it gets me thinking about the many different games I play each day – the “Serious Writer” game, the “Loving Father and Grandfather” game, and – most challenging of all – the “Over-worked, Much-too-busy, Constantly-fearful-and-frustrated Human Being” game. I take these games seriously and usually play them with desire and zeal, but thankfully, I’ve gradually come to realize that they are, in fact, just games. I don’t mean they aren’t serious, important, and sometimes life-changing games – just that they are still only games. Like chess, I enjoy these daily games, but, like chess, I know that if I lose at the “Loving Grandfather” game today, the earth will keep spinning, winds will keep sweeping across mountaintops, and tomorrow will bring another chance to play the delightful game.  Trouble is, I sometimes forget that “Teaching English” is only a game. I often lose myself in the supposed seriousness of it all – the feeling that I am engaged in a colossal and historic task that could transform forever the lives of my students. I frequently forget that, while I’m fretting over the failure of my class to comprehend the various uses of gerunds, “in the Orion Nebula,/From swirling gas, new stars are being born”.* In other words, in the biggest picture of all, my work in Room 2 at my small countryside school is simply a fun-filled, exasperating, festive, problematic, discouraging, and inspiring game. As the narrator in Dickens’ story suggests, I spend entirely too much time regretting past lessons and fussing over future ones, and not nearly enough time taking pleasure in whatever lesson I happen to be teaching – or playing – at the moment. As veteran game-players know, total focus on the game is the first prerequisite. If I’m teaching about irony in Macbeth, that should be as gripping and exciting a game as Monopoly – but still just a game. When both games are over and the players, hopefully, have had a good laugh, the sun will keep setting and rising, as always. 
* from the poem, “Toward the Winter Solstice”, by Timothy Steele

* * * * *

         For some reason, I woke up one Christmas morning with the word “simple” on my mind. Perhaps it was the utter simplicity of the small crèche scene on my coffee table – just a few plain wooden figures looking down at a tiny shape lying on some blades of grass I pulled from the lawn yesterday. Perhaps it was the desire to find a little reassuring simplicity in the midst of some recent disarray within my family. Or perhaps it was the unadorned grayness of the winter sky. Whatever the reason, the idea of simplicity seemed to shine softly for me on this special morning when so many people celebrate the renewal of plain old-fashioned kindness. I’m not sure why, but, as I was fixing the coffee, I started thinking about the old word “simple-minded”, which used to be employed to refer disparagingly to mentally handicapped people. It occurred to me that perhaps there’s a positive side to being simple-minded—that perhaps, in fact, it’s a quality I’m gradually and thankfully approaching in my teaching. Perhaps a simple-minded teacher is one who fully understands his overwhelming ignorance when it comes to the complexities of teaching other human beings, and who is willing to accept this handicap. A simple-minded teacher might be a humble teacher, one who realizes that he is an ordinary person attempting to do extraordinary work.  A simple-minded teacher might be a completely unpretentious and unaffected teacher, because he realizes that pretending to understand the intricacies involved in the rocket-science called teaching is a dead-end street.  The simple-minded teacher, perhaps, has taken off the mask of smugness and self-assurance, and stands before his class as a mere mortal – a mystified, anxious, but always inquiring human being. As I sipped my coffee and looked at the roughly carved wooden baby lying on the coffee table on this Christmas morning, being simple-minded seemed to me to be a stroke of good fortune.

* * * * *

         Recently, after hearing a friend talk about tuning his piano, it occurred to me that I need to keep my English classes well-tuned. As I understand it, tuning an instrument involves adjusting its tones to a fixed reference (for instance, A = 440 Hz) so the instrument is able to play pleasing melodies and harmonies. If an instrument is “out of tune”, the reference point has been lost and the instrument produces only jarring sounds, as though each tone is isolated in its own universe of sound, with no melodious relationship with the other tones. As I wrote that last sentence, I thought of the many classes I’ve taught where the only melodies were those of dissonance and puzzlement – classes in which the students and I seemed utterly out of tune with each other. It was as if an orchestra had assembled but each musician proceeded to play, on untuned instruments, whatever notes came to mind.  These were classes that left me, and surely the students, as weary as if we had listened to confused and incomprehensible music for 48 minutes. To avoid this in the future, the students and I simply need to tune our minds at the start of each class. Our fixed reference will vary from day to day, but it’s important that a moment or two be taken to align our interests and goals – to get us attuned to each other. As the teacher, I probably should be more like a concertmaster than a conductor. At the beginning of a class, similar to a first violinist, I must somehow let the students know what the fixed tone for the class will be, and then join the students in performing some sweet and surprising English class music.

* * * * *
         A popular maxim tells us that knowledge is power, but as a teacher, I must always remember that lack of knowledge is just as powerful. The vast and hidden unknown is a mighty, and often unrecognized, force in any classroom. I sometimes picture my students and I wandering on the surface of a planet called “English”, while the incalculable energies of the unknown are simmering at the center of the planet like so much magma. We are usually unaware of the underground, shadowy, nameless strengths of what we are studying, but they are always there, churning away beneath us. When my students and I are studying a poem, the best we can usually do is wander among the lines, noticing an understandable truth here and there, but only rarely do we catch the rumblings of the unexplained, out-of-sight truths under the words.  Now and them, fortunately for us, something like an eruption happens, sending an extraordinary insight shooting up in our midst, and then we are able to appreciate, again, how powerful are the forces of all that we don’t know. What I find strangest of all is that, by some uncanny magic, the more we know about a work of literature, the more we seem to not know. As our understanding of a short story grows, so does out ignorance of it. Each time we read a poem, a brighter light shines on the words, but, strangely, the darkness beneath the poem grows darker, more potent, … and more beautiful. This is the power of the great unknown at work, and as a teacher, I’m grateful for it. After all, the more we don’t know, the more exploratory and adventurous English class becomes.

* * * * *
         More and more, I realize that the work I’m involved in as an English teacher is both momentous and unremarkable, both special and insignificant. When I’m teaching my teenage scholars, I sometimes feel like an engineer carefully designing and constructing rocket ships, and other times like a custodian who’s simply trying to keep things orderly and neat so the students can do their required English tasks. I sometimes feel very special, and sometimes utterly ordinary – no more special than the anonymous people who somehow send electricity to our school each day. I’m honored to be a teacher, and yet also humbled to realize that I’m just one of the zillions of forces that educate my students each day.  When I find myself sitting on my high horse and applauding myself for belonging to such an important profession, I try to remind myself that, in fact, I’m merely an infitesimal grain of topsoil in the rich loam that instructs the students in the ways of the universe. Each day, they learn about life from every person they meet, sentence they read, sight they see, thought they think, show they watch, song they listen to – and among these literally countless influences is Mr. Salsich’s modest 48-minute English class.  My students are gradually and inevitably unfolding as promising young adults, thanks, in very small part, to the tiny grain of soil called “9th grade English class”. I don’t mean to disparage my work as a teacher, for it is just as important as any other work the universe does to prepare young people for adulthood – but no more important. An essay by N. Scott Momaday, studied in English class, might shine a helpful light on a teenager’s inner life, but so might an episode of “Family Guy”, or a song by Five for Fighting, or the fleeting remark of a friend.  My students learn to write formal paragraphs in my class, but is the writing any stronger or more significant than the tumultuous and impassioned Facebook messages they shoot back and forth to each other? Education happens at the hands of this endless universe, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it all – but just a part, and a microscopic one at that.

* * * * *
“There is much pain that is quite noiseless; and vibrations that make human agonies are often a mere whisper in the roar of hurrying existence. There are glances of hatred that stab and raise no cry of murder; robberies that leave man or woman for ever beggared of peace and joy, yet kept secret by the sufferer - committed to no sound except that of low moans in the night, seen in no writing except that made on the face by the slow months of suppressed anguish and early morning tears. Many an inherited sorrow that has marred a life has been breathed into no human ear.”
            --George Eliot, in Felix Holt, The Radical

         I’m an English teacher, not a therapist, but when I read this passage, I can’t help but think of some of my students. In my classes, we sometimes have what Eliot calls a “hurrying existence” as we try to cover as much material as possible, but I know full well that there are always a few students in the class who are “suffer[ing] pain that is quite noiseless” as we go about pursuing our English goals. Unfortunately, the age of fourteen is not too young to experience crushing sorrow, and many children carry their sorrow into class like a wearisome weight. While the rest of us are dispassionately studying sentence variety in a short story, these students stay silent under the burden of their grief. I think of one girl in my class who has no friends, rarely smiles, and walks stooped over as if carrying an unspeakable load. I know, from talking with school counselors, that she is faced with daily instability and furor at home, and I can see the effects of it in her cheerless eyes. No matter what we happen to be doing in class, including laughing at a riotous scene in a story, she sits among us like a lost and passionless soul. Of course, my contract calls for me to teach English, not give guidance to forlorn teenagers, but unfortunately I’ve never learned how to separate the two. I’m not good at forgetting mournful faces as soon as a class ends. I can be enjoying a glass of Merlot in the evening, when the somber eyes of a student who has no idea where she will be staying each night will rise before me – a girl who is living with “suppressed anguish” every day of her life. I only wish I could help her as easily as I can point out sentence variety in a story.

* * * * *


         At a faculty meeting recently, one of our teachers suggested that a certain student was not “striving” to do his best, and I immediately thought, “Good for him”. It seems to me there’s already too much striving in the world – too much pushing, shoving, struggling, campaigning, grappling, wrestling, scuffling, to say nothing of warring. I don’t need to encourage my teenage students to strive in English class, because the world already forces them up that rugged hill.  The verb “strive”, to me, smacks too much of the “blinders on, eyes straight ahead, get out of my way or I’ll crush you” kind of determination.  When the teacher said the boy was not striving, I pictured the lad simply slowing his engine a bit and perhaps enjoying his young life more than some of his grade-obsessed classmates.  He may not be striving, but maybe he’s going all out, a phrase that looks at ambition from a different angle. When we go all out in an endeavor, we give everything we have to it—and the word “give” is significant. Going all out requires opening up and giving every bit of ourselves to our actions. When we’re striving, we’re not so much giving as pushing and shoving, but when we’re going all out, all of ourselves is out in the world, mingling and mixing with life in the hopes of making something new. Going all out can be done in a stress-free and spirited way, whereas striving is usually done with crumpled brows and grinding teeth. You might say I’m playing with semantics here, but still, I’d rather see my students smiling as they lighten up and go all out on an essay, than see them grow old at 14 while striving to beat an assignment into submission.

* * * [HS1] [HS2] [HS3] * *
         As a teacher, I have often heard “creativity” spoken of as though it’s a quality in short supply – an attribute that some students are fortunate to have and others will never have – but I find this notion increasingly puzzling. It seems clear to me that all of my students are constantly being creative during English class, simply because their minds are always manufacturing thoughts. For 48 minutes, thoughts are steadily arising in their minds, which add up to about 2,880 newborn, novel ideas per student. I may wish the ideas were more in tune with my lesson plans, but, in tune or not, the ideas are there, sprouting by the thousands in each class. I try to keep that in mind as I’m teaching. I sometimes visualize the creativity occurring in the students’ minds – the thoughts bursting like silent bombs, shooting from mental pistols, pushing out like leaves, soaring aloft by the hundreds like colorful kites. The truth is that my students – all of them – can’t avoid being creative. The ideas that spring up nonstop in their brains during class may not fit my private definition of “creative”, and may sail miles away from my lesson and be heavy, occasionally, with sorrow or world-weariness, but my students – all of them – are truly as creative as constant sunrises or storms.

* * * * *
         We usually assume good teaching comes first, then good learning, but who knows – perhaps it’s the other way around. Education is such a give-and-take, take-and-give process that it might be virtually impossible to determine where it starts and ends. In fact, there may be no starts and endings at all, but just a never-ending spiral of learning involving the students and teacher in a single seamless process. During my long career I’ve often wondered about this “chicken or egg” question, especially during those countless classes when I’ve been astounded by something my students have taught me. I make careful lesson plans each day, but, unaccountably, the students often manage to teach me lessons with no help from plans, preparation, or teacher training. I long ago lost track of the number of times my students unfolded the meaning of a novelist’s paragraph for me, or opened my eyes to the significance of a line in a poem, or brought me around to the main point of an author’s essay.  I’m the trained teacher, so I certainly hope I cause some learning to happen, but clearly a significant amount is caused by the students. A lot, too, is caused simply by the fact that I make mistakes in each class, and every one of them is a fine teacher. Each of my slip-ups is a professor who glares at me and says I can do it much better.  I bow, give it thought, and try to learn, thankful to have useful mistakes and instructive students to keep the education going.

* * * * *

         A science teacher was telling me today about the strange behavior of sodium and chlorine, and I couldn’t help but compare it to the behaviors that might be occurring right under my nose in English class. Sodium, he said, is a metal that causes a violent reaction when mixed with water, and chlorine, by itself, is a highly toxic poison. However, when these two elements are combined in the right proportions, an entirely new substance is created, called salt. From two uniquely different and wildly reactive substances comes the soft white stuff that enhances our meals each day.  This, my friend said, is no mere shuffling around of ingredients, but instead is total transformation  -- the kind of operation magicians would marvel at. Strange as it might sound, I wonder if a similar kind of miraculous transformation might happen now and then in my classroom, and in all classrooms. When we’re discussing a novel, does a “sodium” thought inside a student’s head sometimes mix with a “chlorine” thought and produce a totally new thought? Does an “oxygen” idea occasionally meet some “hydrogen” ideas and produce, in a mysterious way, an idea that never existed before for that student, or maybe for any student? I guess this kind of fundamental transformation is what we all hope will happen in our classes – the kind of brand new thinking that can actually remake a portion of a student’s life. As my scientist friend made clear, this type of transformation happens everywhere in nature, constantly, even in every cell in our bodies. Moment by moment, utterly new substances are born from other substances, and perhaps it happens in English class now and then. Perhaps thoughts that might explode or poison on their own occasionally mingle in my students’ minds to create unforeseen, out-of-the-blue ideas that can be used to further enrich their burgeoning lives.

* * * * *

         Ever since graduate school, I have known that being certain about goals is a necessity for good teaching, but, oddly enough, I also know that welcoming uncertainty has its benefits. This realization has come upon me slowly over the years, mostly because the immense uncertainty of all of life has become clearer.  Nothing is certain, so how can I expect to be certain about outcomes of each English class? I have absolutely no idea what will happen in the very next moment, so thinking I can be sure about what will happen step-by-step in class is little more than make-believe. To me, teaching often seems similar to crossing a frozen river during the spring break-up. It’s important to be well-prepared for each class (and a detailed lesson plan is part of that), just as a person traversing spring ice would want to be properly geared-up and organized for the adventure – but both the teacher and the ice-traveler must realize that anything could happen at any moment. Pack-ice cracks and shifts, and so do most lesson plans; on the ice, open water can suddenly appear beneath your feet, and suddenly, in the middle of English class, a new path for the lesson can open up. Both the teacher and the traveler must be prepared but also flexible – intense and focused, but also foot-loose and freewheeling.  You can’t walk on shifting ice floes with an unbending mind-set, and you can’t teach teenagers if you’re overly anxious to reach precise goals.  Walking on spring ice is a haphazard undertaking, and so is teaching.

* * * * *

         When I awoke this morning, it suddenly occurred to me that, for the past seven hours, I had absolutely no control over anything that happened in my life – and, oddly enough, I immediately thought about my work as an English teacher.  Control is a huge concern in the lives of most teachers. For many of us, a top priority is to feel that we are in control of our classes – that we can organize and manage our lessons and our students so learning takes place. We like having our fingers on the pulse of every part of the learning process, pulling strings and maneuvering in order to keep the educational process going.  We like to think that if we weren’t at the helm guiding and steering the students toward knowledge, the good ship of learning, at least in our classroom, would definitely drift off course. I like to be in control as much as any of us– but then, what about last night? What about the fact that, while my controlling and manipulating brain was fast asleep for seven hours, an astonishing number of events happened to my life with perfect efficiency? While I was far away from the helm of the ship called “Hamilton”, the ship nonetheless ran with utter perfection – heart pumping accurately, blood coursing along precisely the way it should, lungs filling and deflating without a single mistake, and a trillion cells doing a trillion tasks flawlessly. Not only that, a zillion other things in the universe occurred quite perfectly in those seven hours with absolutely no help from me. Everything from the bending of grass blades in a breeze to the circling of far-off stars happened while Mr. Salsich, the English teacher, was not in control. The universe danced along quite nicely without any dispensing or administering from me. What does all this mean? Does it mean I should surrender control of my classes and allow them to “do their own thing”? Of course not. On one level, I know it’s imperative that I guide and direct my students, and I take that responsibility seriously. However, from now on I’ll try to keep last night’s sleep-filled but well-organized hours in mind as I go about controlling my students. I’ll try to put it all in perspective, to remember that while I’m at the helm of the wee ship called “9th Grade English”, countless other helms (including those inside my body and outside our galaxy) are under the prudent control of nameless, mysterious, and infinitely wise captains.

* * * * *
         I often help with crowd control in our school’s chorus class (90 students and one teacher), and this morning I noticed some interesting resemblances between what happens there and what happens during discussions in my English classes. The teacher was teaching the group about the different parts they would be singing in an upcoming program – bass, alto, tenor, soprano – and, as she talked and then led them in rehearsal, I thought about the different parts my students “sing” when we’re holding a discussion. In the chorus, each voice blends its own special range of sounds into the group, and in my class the students try to mingle their unique personalities and ranges of ideas into the discussion. One student’s qualities and ways of thinking are as different from another’s as a bass is from a soprano, and yet both the ideas and voices manage to mix together in unexpectedly agreeable ways. Somehow, all the voices in the teenage chorus – high and low, silvery and squeaky, unspoiled and coarse – make harmonies and tunes together, and somehow a similar surprise occurs, at least occasionally, in English class. Of course, this takes some work – sometimes prodigious work – on the part of the teacher. Our music teacher painstakingly trains her singers to sing their various melodies while at the same time staying aware of the overall movement of the song, and I suppose you could say I train my students to blend their talents together in a discussion. The music teacher wants to take full advantage of each singer’s unique voice and range, and yet still produce a single harmonious musical piece, and, likewise, I want my students to bring their inimitable personalities to the discussion, but to also work together to create a conversation that flows in a rich and mellow way. Watching the chorus class this morning, it occurred to me that training students to take part in an intelligent and graceful discussion might be every bit as tricky as training them to sing in harmony. Perhaps I need to “rehearse” discussion techniques with the students. Perhaps I need to be more specific in showing them, for instance, how a skeptical student’s comment can be blended in smoothly with a classmate’s optimistic ideas, or how some “bass” ideas can finally mix in a nimble way with a few “soprano” insights and produce a sweet finale to a discussion. 

* * * * *

         Messing around in a dictionary the other day, I came upon the word “affinity”, and began mulling over its connection to my English classes. One definition of the word is “a similarity of characteristics suggesting a relationship”, and as I thought about my classes, a crowd of similarities and relationships came to mind. It occurred to me, for instance, that all of us – my students and I – are similar in a very basic way: our bodies interact with the same air. As we’re discussing a short story or learning about using dependent clauses, the trillions of cells in our bodies are being refreshed by the zillion oxygen atoms pulsating in my classroom, and “used” oxygen atoms in the form of carbon dioxide are flowing by the zillions out of all of us and back into the air of the classroom. While I’m explaining the homework assignment, this ocean-like process of oxygen-give-and-take is surging among and through us, teacher and kids alike. In this sense, we all have a fundamental affinity with each other – a relationship as close as breezes in a great wind.  And this is just the start. There are, I realized, countless other affinities among all of us in English class. For instance, all the words we speak in the classroom are words we’ve probably heard innumerable times in innumerable contexts, and thus they resonate and reverberate inside each of us. It’s as if we’re all joined in an endless web of words, and each spoken word strikes the web and sends ripples ceaselessly out to the frontiers – or as if we are a fleet of small boats, and far beneath us the words we speak flow in unseen currents, carrying us along in ways beyond our understanding. A final affinity is simply the complex and inscrutable relationship among the works of literature we study. Each work we read could flash endless connections—if only we could see all of them—to every other work.  These types of affinities actually seem infinite in number. A poem could relate to any another poem, to any tree swaying outside in a wind, to a student’s grandmother’s illness, to single word on a street sign, to the sweep of stars overhead. In great literature, affinities are everywhere, because great literature (and who knows, maybe English class) stretches out to everywhere – opens all doors, breaks all boundaries, touches dust and stars.

* * * * *
         I sometimes think my main responsibility as a teacher is not so much to help students learn as to make sure the learning they’re already involved in carries on. It occurs to me that I’m not so much a teacher as a facilitator – someone who makes it as easy (L. facilis) as possible for the students to continue to flow with the process of learning, a process as pervasive and enduring as the weather of the earth. When the students walk into my classroom each day, they are already involved with this process. They are thinking or feeling deeply about some issue, be it a serious personal predicament or simply the look of the light snow falling on the ski trails last weekend.  Their minds and hearts are working hard, as usual, and hard work means learning – not the academic kind of learning we’re caught up in as teachers, but the learning that happens constantly because they, like all of us, are continuously thinking or imagining or supposing or pondering or estimating or presuming or wondering. In other words, they are being educated at all times, including the moment they enter my room for English class. If I can keep that in mind, if I can remember that my students, in a sense, are working through their own “lesson plans” as they take their seats in my room, then perhaps my lesson won’t be a complete disruption of their own personal education (as it often is, I’m afraid), but rather a reasonable and fairly enjoyable trip down a branch of the great river of learning they’re always traveling.

* * * * *

         I require my students to write many highly structured essays, and I often remind them that it’s a LeBron James-like endeavor.  James, after all, is required to work within an extremely structured set of guidelines. There are dozens of clear-cut rules he must abide by as he goes about producing his astounding feats in a basketball game, to say nothing of the relatively small dimensions of the court upon which he must perform. He also has a coach and teammates who expect him to follow a game plan that, at his level of play, is no doubt detailed and convoluted. It might seem to be a miracle that he is able to be so creative within all this structure, but I see it differently: his creativity, I believe, is enhanced by the structure.  Imagine if he had to follow no rules, no game plan, and there were no boundaries to the court. Imagine if he could do whatever he pleased with the ball, including double-dribbling, running while carrying the ball, and even dashing up into the stands with the ball, or outside the building and down the street. It sounds ridiculous, mostly because we know he wouldn’t be fun to watch anymore. We know, when we think about it, that it’s precisely the rules and boundaries that make his creativity so noteworthy. Working within the rigid structure of the game, LeBron James is a maker of marvels because of the structure. I sometimes remind my students of this when I give an essay assignment; I tell them again that all the rules and guidelines I set up for their essay assignments are actually designed to help them set their ingenuity free. I tell them I would be doing them a disservice if I simply said, “Write whatever you want in whatever way you want to”, because who is impressed by a writer – or basketball player – who isn’t pushing against or bouncing off or stretching or manipulating or dancing with (as James does) a structure and a set of rules? To put it another way, who is impressed by a writer or athlete (or any type of artist, for that matter) who faces no challenges or obstacles? Where is the creativity in that?  My final reminder to the students is that perhaps the most creative writer in our language, Shakespeare, wrote all his plays and poems within very strict guidelines, including the fairly inflexible formula of iambic pentameter.  He discovered that the most exciting creativity lies hidden inside structures and rules, and so, I think, has LeBron James – and so, I hope, will my students.

* * * * *
         Yesterday there were, as usual, some brief periods during my classes when some students had nothing to do. This happens, for instance, when students are copying information from the board and the faster writers have perhaps thirty seconds to kill as they wait for classmates to finish. Generally these might be considered wasted moments to be avoided, but I like to think of them as refreshing pauses to be enjoyed. Most of my students rush around in their young lives in a frantic fashion, doing ten tasks and then ten more and then ten more. I disagree with teachers who say that students live relatively lighthearted lives; what I see in my school could best be described as a madcap tumult of activity: class after class after class with a two-minute break, then sports, then homework, homework, homework. Yes, the young people do find time to twitter, text, email, and otherwise entertain themselves, but, even so, they are fairly caught up in our modern maelstrom of non-stop doing. I doubt if they have many thirty-second periods in their days when they do absolutely nothing, so I consider it their good fortune that they occasionally come upon these small waterholes of silence and serenity in English class.  When a student has finished writing down an assignment, or when a break occurs between activities, perhaps there’s a moment or two when nothing’s happening for a few students save the faithful rising and falling of their lungs. Surely this is a gift to be cherished. This is not time to kill but to savor, like a little waterhole in the students’ anxious and hasty lives.

* * * * *
         The other day, a fine teacher at my school made a simple but instructive suggestion concerning calming student restlessness during class: give a definite stopping time for each activity. As I thought about her suggestion later, it occurred to me that some of my students’ restiveness might stem from their sense that English class has no definable boundary lines – that it’s a sort of a formless ocean of grammar rules and essay topics and novels and poems, a 48-minute period where nothing ever really starts or ends, but activities sort of swirl around in an incessant and fairly directionless manner.  I do try hard to present an orderly lesson plan each day, but I wonder if my plans sometimes appear to my students to be more like blurred overviews than precise, step-by-step diagrams. I wonder if they feel lost in a haze of general English goings-on, rather than clear-headed and fully alert on a marked path to a specific goal. My colleague’s suggestion makes some sense. If I tell the students, for instance, that we will discuss a certain poem for precisely 14 minutes, ending at 10:22, at which time we will have a 2-minute summary of the discussion and a 2-minute period for silent reflection and note-taking, perhaps this would help them feel more oriented, more purposeful. If they knew, in other words, that there was a specific moment when an activity would stop, they might possibly give themselves more heartily to the activity. Of course, I have to remain flexible in my work as a teacher, but flexibility can too easily dwindle away into mere sluggishness and puzzlement, where an activity doesn’t really end but just sort of drifts off into side streams and disappears (as often happens, I must say, in our faculty meetings). Instead of allowing the discussion to be extended and then possibly fade away among the worn-out students, a better way to employ flexibility might be to say, at 10:22, “We clearly need more time to discuss this poem. Let’s continue with our discussion tomorrow. Now let’s do our 2-minute summary, as scheduled.” Perhaps giving my fidgety students specific stopping points would make school seem less like an endless ocean of perplexity and disorder, and more like a series of informative journeys to precise targets: e.g., 20 minutes to review the story, 14 minutes to practice using appositives, 2 minutes to breathe deeply and daydream. 

* * * * *
         Since some of my students are currently engaged in a complicated long-term activity, the kind we often call a  “project”, I’ve been pondering some various meanings of that word. It derives from the Latin “to throw forward”, as in “seeds are projected from the tree”, and lately I’ve been picturing my students doing just that – using this project to hurl themselves out into the academic world, hoping someone (including me) might catch sight of them speeding across the sky of learning like so many blazing arrows.  Indeed, their gazes in class sometimes seem extra intense these days, as if, inside themselves, they are speeding here and there across the literary landscape, searching for exotic landmarks, perhaps some rare ironies or a stretch of striking metaphors.  Who knows where they will eventually land when the project comes to a close, but I’m sure they’re hoping it’s someplace soft, hospitable, and satisfying, where they’ll be welcomed, conceivably, by a small crowd of appreciative supporters. Perhaps the students are also interested in using this project to project an image of themselves. Maybe they imagine a small instrument inside them that is able to shine an image on the front screen of their appearance, and they’re hoping my daunting long-term assignment will enable that image to be luminous with wisdom and self-assurance.  Possibly they see themselves, when they finally receive their good grade for the project, walking down the halls at school with the soft light of their own talents flashing out from some secret projector inside them.

* * * * *
         Exploring in the dictionary this morning, I discovered that both ballets and storms take place in my English classes.  The word “conversation” derives from the Latin word for “turn with”, which is what ballet dancers do together on stage and what my students and I do when we talk with each other about literature. When we share ideas across the classroom, we try to turn toward each other in earnest partnership, and we often turn with each other as we adjust our thoughts and come to gracious agreements. It’s satisfying to think of our conversations as a kind of dance – sometimes litigious and free-wheeling, to be sure, but perhaps always stylish in a coarse and youthful way. Of course, classroom conversations can also be called discussions, and the dictionary tells me that these might be better compared to storms than dances. When I read that the word “discuss” comes, to my surprise, from the Latin words for “shake apart’ or “dashed to pieces”, I immediately thought of the many occasions when ideas were flying around my classroom in the blustery weather of adolescent disagreements. Usually the students have maintained a modicum of civility during these tempestuous discussions, but still, a visitor walking into the room might decide to take cover. When young, impassioned people discuss in a sincere and liberated way, ideas will, in fact, be shaken apart, and a few cherished thoughts might be dashed to pieces. It’s as far from a ballet as you can get, but perhaps, in its way, just as beautiful.

* * * * *
         As I was talking with a colleague yesterday about literature circles, he mentioned that a small-group discussion can actually be a form of revision, not of students’ writing but of their thinking – and I found it an intriguing notion. He said when students engage in conversation about a book, they can actually take part in a process very similar to amending and modifying a piece of writing.  Assuming they are open to new ways of thinking about the book, their thoughts can alter in intricate and subtle ways as the discussion proceeds. You might say they come to the discussion with a ‘first draft” of interpretations, but by the end of the discussion they are closer, perhaps, to a second and maybe more polished way of looking at the book. I spend a lot of time revising my own writing (it’s actually the most cheerful part of the process for me) and I require my students to do the same, but I hadn’t considered the notion of “revising” our thoughts about a book. If dusting off, rearranging, reshuffling, fiddling with, and polishing a piece of writing seems to get me closer to creating something like a modest work of art, perhaps participating in a book discussion can do the same for my students and me. Perhaps, when the last discussion is finished, we can each be proud that we have created a revised, refined, even somewhat sophisticated, maybe even beautiful interpretation.
* * * * *
         I realize more and more how important simplicity is to good teaching, but I also realize that it’s not easy to be a simple teacher and run a simple classroom. One of the trickiest skills I’ve had to learn, and am still learning, is how to be completely straightforward, direct, and down-to-earth in my work with students. It sounds odd to say that being simple is a “tricky” skill, but that’s part of the irony – that simplicity is one of the most complex qualities a teacher has to acquire. As the song reminds us, it’s a gift to be simple, but it’s also a talent I have to consciously develop and refine. I can, for instance, practice distilling my lesson plans down to the point where both the goals and the procedures are utterly clear – no frills, trimmings, or add-ons.  I can also simplify what I say in class: less shooting from the hip, more silent pauses, more thinking before I speak, fewer words but more carefully laden. This in no way means my teaching should be dull. Simplicity is not lifelessness. One of my favorite definitions for “simple” is “humble and unpretentious”, qualities I admire in a teacher – but they don’t imply dullness. A river, to me, is one of the simplest marvels in nature, but it’s loaded with the opposite of dullness. It basically does what rivers must do, simply flows where all rivers must flow, but does so with indescribable liveliness and force. I guess I’d like to teach in a strong but simple way, the way a river flows.

* * * * *
         Over the years, my school, like most, has gotten increasingly into cataloging the various disabilities of the students, but, as much as I appreciate the work of our learning specialists, I wish they would replace the term “disability” with “different ability”.  The prefix “dis” is strictly a negation, implying, as one dictionary puts it,  “the absence or opposite of something positive”, and I hate to place that kind of label on a student. If a student, for instance, learns very slowly, couldn’t we say she has a different way of learning, instead of suggesting that some positive skill is missing in her? There are a thousand roads to Mecca, and there are way more than a thousand ways a person can learn. Who are we to suggest that certain ways of learning are more positive or correct than others? Of course, some methods of learning lead to more “success” in our highly standardized school programs, which is why it’s important for specialists to help these different learners become skilled at new ways of learning – ways that will enable them to more easily keep up with our fairly uniform curriculums. I just don’t like the notion that there are only a few constructive ways to learn, and that anyone who learns in other ways is somehow deficient. There’s the negative prefix again: “de” suggests the absence of or the opposite of, implying that our unusual, atypical, out-of-the-ordinary learners are somehow incapacitated or (to use a no-no, politically incorrect word) crippled. I prefer to see them as simply different. For me, it’s as simple as this: most kids learn one way, these unique kids learn in other ways. That doesn’t mean they have a disability. Who knows, by observing them carefully instead of labeling them as disabled, we might begin to understand – and maybe appreciate—their different, weird, even wonderful ways of learning.

* * * * *
         I heartily support the work our learning specialists do in helping out-of-the-ordinary (sometimes called “disabled”) learners develop new skills that will help them find success in our highly standardized system of education. This doesn’t mean these unique learners should be ashamed of their in-born ways of learning (one of these ways is called dyslexia, another is known as ADHD), or that they should try to totally replace them (which is probably impossible anyway.) On the contrary, they should accept the way they naturally learn as a rare and useful gift they were born with. The fact that these gifts are not generally recognized as such, but are more commonly thought of as defects, deficiencies, weaknesses, or flaws, should not discourage these unusual learners from accepting, and even celebrating, their extraordinary (literally “outside of the ordinary”) learning styles.  Lest that sound like a facetious remark, it’s now widely known that an unusual percentage of people with atypical learning styles (like dislexia, ADD, etc.) have exceptionally high IQs. For some reason that science does not yet understand, one of the endowments that often come with advanced intelligence is some type of odd and uncommon way of learning, like ADHD. In fact, innumerable successful people have had the distinction of having one of these learning dissimilarities, and it may be that their success stemmed, in part, from the quirky and eccentric way in which they learned. This, of course, is nothing new. Over the past 20 years, many articles and books have been published advocating the idea that what we call disabilities should rightly be called gifts. Not surprisingly, there is a large group on Facebook called “The Gift of Invisible Disability”, on which I found this quote:
“I am only different because I do not see, hear, focus, or connect the way you do - because I have a different way of learning. Yes I am different but only because I have a gift that you do not.”
 The point is that conditions like dyslexia do not have to be thought of as weaknesses, disadvantages, or drawbacks, just as being 6’10” doesn’t. Dyslexia and tallness are just the way things are for some of us. Whether we decide it’s a disability or a gift is entirely up to us.

* * * * *
         I’ve written earlier that different learning abilities (sometimes called “disabilities”) might be considered gifts rather than shortcomings, but I didn’t mean to imply that no pain is coupled with those gifts. It seems to me that sorrow and happiness are two sides of the same coin – that you can’t have one without a fair share of the other – and so it seems natural that our gifts will probably produce an equal amount of pleasure and pain. Of all the gifts I have received, none has produced more pleasure than my body, but neither has any gift brought me more pain. Over the long years of my life, my body has often caused me severe pain, but it has also brought me indescribable pleasure, which is why it remains the greatest of gifts. The fact that the pleasure rotates fairly evenly with pain in no way diminishes the happy rewards I’ve received from this gift of a human body. The same is true of the other amazing gift, my mind. I have suffered greatly because of this magnificent instrument – runaway thoughts, utter confusion, ever-revolving fears and worries, even downright dejection and depression – but all of this misery has been beautifully balanced by the numberless mental miracles all of us experience. Does the suffering my mind has caused me mean that it’s not a magnificent gift – that it’s a “disability”? The answer is obvious – and I wonder if we could replace the word “mind” in the previous sentence with “dyslexia”, “ADHD”, or any of the countless atypical, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary learning abilities science has discovered. Yes, ADHD does cause serious problems for people, but so do their internal organs, their arms and legs, their loved ones, their houses, their cars, and every other wonderful gift life has given them. Being human – in any way, shape, form, or condition – is often a troublesome and painful enterprise, but it is still an astonishing gift to be cherished. A colleague of mine has recently learned this lesson. After living for years with his own reckless temper tantrums, mood swings, inability to focus, and colossal unpredictability, he was finally diagnosed this past summer with ADHD. I vividly recall the day he told me about the diagnosis. He was, I think, overjoyed that he now realized what had been going on inside him all those years. He didn’t say he realized what was wrong with him – just that he understood himself better. After giving the diagnosis, the doctor asked him what his profession was, and when my friend told him he was an 8th grade English teacher, the doctor smiled. “I’ll bet you love your work,” the doctor said, “and I’ll bet you’re damn good at it.” My friend was surprised, and said, “Yes, I do love teaching, and I guess I am fairly good at it. How did you know?” The doctor told him he knew simply because, in his wide experience, he’s learned that ADHD can be a genuine asset to a teacher, especially one who works with teenagers.  He told my friend that ADHD will continue to cause all kinds of problems for him, but that he should always keep in mind the strengths and talents – the gifts – it also gives him. He said he wouldn’t be nearly as good a teacher without it.  I will end with a quote from a graduation speech by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., given at Eagle Hill (a school for students who learn in unusual ways) in 2008:
“The secret is that Eagle Hill is a covert operation, code name, Eagle Hill. The true mission of Eagle Hill is to find and train the most interesting, talented, gifted, unusual, tenacious, humorous, creative, hard-working, out-of-the-box future innovators and leaders that can be found among kids of or near high school age. Believing that it might cause these students to develop a swelled head were they told of the true mission of the school, it was decided years ago to disguise what happens here as the treatment of learning disabilities. This would encourage you all to work all the harder, not that you need all that much of such encouragement, and it would also help in fund-raising, as donors prefer to give to people in need. But now, I can let you in on the secret. Having both ADD and dyslexia myself, I am a member of the secret society you all belong to, the society of the

* * * * *
         In a famous passage from Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”, the poet writes of a boy who, when “the earliest stars” began to shine, “blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,/ That they might answer him”, and I must confess to often feeling like that lonely lad when I’m teaching 9th graders. In an odd way, my classroom often feels like friendless and rough backcountry, perhaps not too different from Wordsworth’s “cliffs/ And islands of Winander”, and there I am, day after day, sending out “hootings” to my students, hoping they will respond. Like the boy in the poem, I try different kinds of signals to the kids – a well-planned lesson, maybe a raised voice, perhaps stares, gimmicks, stunts, devices, attention-grabbers, even dead silence – anything to get even a faint response.  It’s as if I’m high on a cliff, alone, with the students somewhere out in the pathless forest, and my voice goes forth like a solitary searcher: Is anyone out there?  There are many days when my teenage “owls” stay as concealed and silent as Wordsworth’s sometimes were, but there are also days when they do respond – days when, for some mysterious reason, the call of my lesson plan stirs up weird and wonderful replies. On those days, my classroom is a wilderness in a most beautiful way – a place where unspoiled adolescence and innocent old age team up to make some fairly raucous but graceful intellectual “music”.  On those days, I sometimes read, in the evening with some Merlot accompaniment, the rest of the passage from “The Prelude”:
“… and they would shout      
Across the watery vale, and shout again,       Responsive to his call,--with quivering peals,       And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud       Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din!”

I wouldn’t want to have “quivering peals” in my classroom every day, just as I wouldn’t want to hike in a wilderness every day, but coming every now and then, those “jocund” days serve to remind me of the wonderful folly and wildness that seems to lie hidden in the heart of good teaching.

         There will be some serious “planting” done in Room 2 today. Students will be with me for roughly four hours, during which time we will create, among us, maybe 500,000 thoughts. We actually have no say in the matter. Whether we want them to or not, our minds are constantly manufacturing ideas, sending out thoughts like seed-spreaders. It’s as if there’s a factory inside us that works nonstop to produce a ceaseless stream of thoughts.  What’s interesting to me is that these thoughts – all of them—take root in our minds and sprout and send out shoots of other thoughts, minute by minute as my classes proceed.  My students and I are not aware of this process, of course, but it’s happening nonetheless – a silent, incessant explosion and proliferation and dispersion of ideas inside us. I suppose many of our thoughts during my English classes simply fall into the soil of our lives and lie dormant for periods of time, perhaps even years – but I believe they never just disappear. Our teenage and senior-citizen minds are like vast meadows where thoughts beyond count rest beneath the surface, waiting for the right time to spring up and offer assistance. Some of these sleeping ideas were brought forth in English class, born during some bookish discussion or perhaps during one of the many daydreaming expeditions my students surely engage in while I’m teaching. It gives me satisfaction to know that no thought generated during my classes (or anyone’s classes) goes to waste, that every wandering, wayfaring idea inside our minds will be productive and helpful at some point. Years from now, a former student might be speaking with a friend, when suddenly, unbeknownst to her, old thoughts from 9th grade English might rise up in secret and show her the words to use. Or perhaps a former student might be suffering a great sorrow years from now, when somehow an idea born back in my class might come into blossom and bring light and relief.

* * * * *
         More and more, I feel the need to observe myself as I go about my teaching duties. I need to occasionally step to the side of the stage, in my mind, and simply watch this 68-year-old teacher perform in his classroom. If I could do this now and then, I would see that everything, in a way, is just fine – that no matter what I do in the classroom, including no matter what mistakes I make, the show turns out to be fairly interesting and satisfactory. Stepping back and observing myself would settle me down, make me see that teaching, in fact, is nothing personal. Education is not about some center-stage, powerhouse teacher leading his students to the heights of wisdom. English class is not a drama with a protagonist called Mr. Salsich. It’s just another of a zillion enthralling pageants the universe puts on for entertainment’s sake, and getting down off the stage now and then, at least in my mind, would help me appreciate it. “Wow,” I might say, “look at me up there trying to teach. Whether I succeed or fail, I seem to do both pretty well. I seem to be excellent at both winning and losing in the classroom.”

* * * * *
         As a boy, I always enjoyed dressing up in costumes (not just at Halloween, but anytime) and I actually still do. In fact, you might say I wear a costume every day in my classroom, and I don’t just mean my bow tie and sweater: I put on a sort of inner costume when I’m teaching. I think of myself as playing a role – that of a middle school English teacher – and so, as I’m preparing for school in the morning, I don an interior set of clothes – a mindset, a way of thinking – that’s appropriate for the role. Since I take this role seriously, I want to be fully prepared when the curtain of my classroom goes up every day. To some, this may sound odd, even irreverent, as though I’m not taking my profession seriously, as though it’s merely a trivial pastime. Quite to the contrary, teaching is an enterprise of great significance to me, just as a prized role is of great significance to an actor.  I want to play this teaching “part” with sincerity and enthusiasm, since it’s a role I longed for as far back as my high school days. If an Oscar were given for “best dramatic or comedic performance as a teacher”, one of my unvarying goals would be to win one. Yes, I do take my role as a teacher seriously, but it is just that – a role, a part I play, a character I portray, a performance I put on each day.  It’s not so strange, really, to think of it this way. I’m simply doing what the universe does. Each day, it plays different roles, puts on different costumes – clouds one day, sparkling light the next, train wreck one day, widespread happiness the next. The universe moves from mornings to noons to nights with perfect aplomb, and I try to move through my roles in a similar way, easily taking one inner costume off and putting on another – quiet reader, writer, washer of dishes, grateful grandfather, peculiar old English teacher.

* * * * *
         Reading a bit of “The Prelude” this morning, I came across the passage where Wordsworth describes the village people in France as being “pleased with [their] daily task[s], or, if not pleased/ Contented…”, and I quickly realized that that is exactly what I hope for my students. Realistically, I can’t hope that they will be pleased with every English class, or even with any English class. We climb some rugged literary mountains in class, and the writing the students are required to do is more like constructing a solid house from scratch than throwing up an umbrella on the beach. English class is an arduous workout rather than a walk in the park, and what teenager would feel genuinely pleased while doing demanding mental calisthenics? I do hope, however, that my students, like Wordsworth’s French villagers, can feel contented during my class – contented because they know they are doing what they should be doing, and what will probably bring some benefits—at least down the road. Some of us feel contented at the gym even as we force ourselves to go harder on the treadmill, because we know we need the exercise, and I hope my students, at least occasionally, feel contented in a similar way. If someone asked them if they were happy to come to English class each day, truthfully I imagine most would say no, but I would hope they might say they were “okay” with it. Perhaps they would say, “I hate the hard work, but I can accept it.” That kind of attitude would make a perfect atmosphere for class—a full awareness of the wearying labor involved in reading great works of literature and writing weighty essays, and yet a peaceful acceptance of it because it’s simply what must be done from 10:30 to 11: 18 each day, and because, just maybe, there might be some compensation involved. Maybe they’ll reach the “summit” of Macbeth and enjoy the startling view, or maybe they’ll build an essay that’s as sturdy and stylish as a palace.

* * * * *
         I would like my classes to be comfortable for my students, though by that I don’t mean easy. The word “comfortable” derives from the Latin words meaning “with power”, and easy assignments certainly don’t promote the feeling of being with power. Only by setting arduous tasks and challenging obstacles before the students can I encourage them to feel their own power. Only by driving them up steep literary trails and through thorny writing projects can I enable them to be truly comfortable – truly able, quite literally, to be with power.  Of course, I always try to be there to comfort the students as they wrestle with my weighty assignments, but to comfort them is simply to remind them that they are already “with the power” they need. When I comfort students, I don’t pity, feel sorry for, commiserate with, or grieve for them; on the contrary, I simply remind them that they already have all the power necessary to do the task at hand. I remind them that they can be comfortable, in the literal sense of that word, with the assignment.

* * * * *
         I occasionally do a simple feat of magic at the start of a lesson, just to rouse up the students, but this morning I’m thinking about another kind of magic that’s sometimes present in any English class. After all, we teachers of literature deal with words, those magical parcels made of syllables and sounds. I can’t think of any natural phenomenon that contains more natural enchantment than a word. Sunrise happens miraculously each morning and a snowstorm can transform a landscape like a wizard, but even the tiniest and softest word has at least as much mysterious power. Listening to a Shakespeare sonnet read aloud in class, a student or a teacher can be secretly changed by a single group of words—quietly altered inside where thoughts and feelings respond to the words in complex and inexplicable ways.  All the thousands of words my students and I speak as we discuss our reading or writing – even the slightest words tossed out like light scraps of ideas – have the power to rearrange our thoughts like a magician shuffles cards. I guess I need to tread gently when I’m in my classroom, for enchantment is happening all around. A student’s essay on the screen in front of the class can show a sentence that makes common words seem astonishing, and the last sentence in a Cather short story can change a drab day into a luminous one, at least for few magical moments.

* * * * *
         In my reading before school this morning, I came across the phrase “without beginning, without end”, and started wondering if perhaps English class could be described that way. I’m sure my students would be thoroughly dismayed to think that English class might be never-ending, but there may be some truth in the notion that learning about the power of words (which is what English class is about) doesn’t actually start at, say, 10:30 and end at 11:18. I officially begin and end my classes at specific times, of course, but I can’t pretend that my students find out about the stunts and transformations words can perform only within those artificial time frames.  Surely my students are attending the universal, omnipresent class on words and their wisdom at almost every waking moment. For instance, most of the kids use words every chance they get, especially in casual conversations, those informal festivals where words are exchanged, back and forth, like friendly or frosty gifts.  When they’re sending out and receiving spoken words by the tens of thousands each day, is there any chance they’re not learning a vast amount about the muscle and influence of language? Is this not actually a daylong English class? And then there are the endless amounts of words many of the students employ on Facebook, shooting phrases back and forth like flares, hoping someone out in cyberspace might signal back. As teachers, we can, if we choose, dismiss this unconventional, exploratory use of language as a valueless learning tool, but that would be an unfortunate mistake.  Just because a professional teacher is not conducting an official class does not mean learning is not occurring—maybe, in fact, at a deeper and more genuine level than in an authorized English class.  We learn about the charm and vitality of words by using them and watching what happens, which is what my students do online for sometimes dozens of hours each week. Is this not part of the never-starting, never-stopping English class of their lives?

* * * * *

         In Book 6 of The Prelude, Wordsworth writes of “a flash that … revealed/ The invisible world”, and it occurs to me that it might be the kind of flash that happens occasionally in any English class. The fact is that we English teachers and students sometimes deal with the invisible. There are times when we’re like explorers in the world of the veiled and unseen. In a way, we’re recreational clairvoyants, using a human being’s uncanny ability to see beyond normal sensory contact – beyond the outer shell of words on a page and into the hidden territory of their meanings. We, of course, are visible as we sit at our desks in the classroom, and our tools are certainly visible – books, paper, pencils, pens, laptops—but we do most of our labor in the kingdom of thoughts, those ghostly artisans that flit through our lives with spirit and influence.  A visitor to my classroom might see a fairly lackluster sight – a group of teens and an old guy talking quietly – but what they wouldn’t see is what’s special. Under the surface of the seemingly commonplace conversations, unseen ideas would be dancing around in their own universe.  It’s like science fiction, really – a strange, mysterious, concealed world right under our noses in English class.

* * * * *
“…tones of nature smoothed by learned Art…”
         When I came across this quote in Wordsworth’s The Prelude today, I started thinking about the “smoothing” that sometimes (I hope) happens in my classes. My students come to class as just what they are – young, fidgety, worked up, and bemused kids, natural products of a boundless and bewildering universe. The words they wrote last night on Facebook and are speaking as they enter my room are purely “tones of nature” – expressions as unfettered as storms or sunshine. They come in like breezes pass through the screen – without restraint and effortlessly – and this is as it should be, and the way I like it. My task, as their English teacher, is not to restrain or alter their natural spiritedness, but simply to enable it to “smoothed by learned Art”.  When they read in my class, I hope they read with passion and pleasure, but I also hope their naturally raring-to-go reading habits can be tempered by creative discipline.  When they write, I hope they pour their native fervor into the sentences and paragraphs, but my mission is to also make available the tools of tidiness and artistry. It’s interesting to me that Wordsworth’s specified that the “Art” is “learned”, as if he knew from experience that making stylish phrases with words is anything but easy. Perhaps he was suggesting that word-artists are not born, but only made through steady labor and enduring single-mindedness. Perhaps he felt that smoothing out our naturally wild thoughts and words is the most resourceful road to smart and skillful reading and writing.  In this regard, I often think of stones in a riverbed. Eons ago, they were naturally rough and sharp, but the patient river has steadily smoothed them until they now sometimes seem as polished as gems. As their English teacher, I need to show the students the value of coolly rolling some artistry and discipline over their natural ways of reading and writing.

* * * * *
“I looked upon these things          
As from a distance; heard, and saw, and felt,          
Was touched, but with no intimate concern…”
--Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book VI

         There is no such word as “impersonalness”, but it helps me say what I want to say – that teaching should be as impersonal as possible. Helping students realize their potential should in no way be influenced by, or hinge on, my personality, my ego, or my sense of self.  In fact, my sense of myself as a separate person who needs to “succeed” as a teacher can only hinder my work in the classroom. Only by seeing teaching and learning as something way beyond individual personalities – something much bigger than egos and self-images – can I hope to feel the full force of the learning process. It has always seemed to me that breaking through the sense of separateness and isolation is the fastest way to open the door to learning. When my students struggle with the educational process, it’s often because they are seeing themselves as disconnected, cut-off individuals fighting to gather knowledge as though it were occasional stones of gold.  They struggle because they see the learning process as being very personal – their small, insubstantial, and restricted personal talents pitted against the vast universe of facts and data.  What I hope to do is help the students see the process in a very different way – not as a personal struggle but as a kind of harmonious swirl of ideas.  By “harmonious” I don’t mean that no work is involved in the learning process – just that the work can be pleasant rather than painful. By getting our egos out of the way (as much as is possible in this ego-obsessed era) both the students and I could perhaps relax and truly enjoy our education.  We could, perchance, look upon our education “[as] from a distance” – as a curious adventure we are part of, but one that we can also dispassionately observe and appreciate. We could teach and learn “with no intimate concern” – no worries about our self-esteem or reputation, but with a simple sense of gratitude for the wonder of it all.

* * * * *
         As my years in the classroom have passed, I have increasingly enjoyed a feeling of gratitude at the end of a school day.  I often compare it to a feeling at the conclusion of a hike in the Grand Canyon. Sure, things might not have gone exactly the way I had planned (perhaps a fall on the trail, or only half of a lesson covered in class), but how can I complain when I’m surrounded by a canyon of the gods or a group of children born to be brave and wise? If you’re in paradise, shouldn’t you feel grateful at the end of the day, no matter what happened? It takes no effort to complain (many of us teachers would get straight A’s for our griping and grumbling), but it sometimes– surprisingly – takes concentrated effort to see the miracles right in front of our eyes. When I hear teachers complain about their work with young people, I picture people sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon with blindfolds on. How did they come to forget how fortunate they are? When I think of the millions of people who have no job, and the millions who labor in physically wearying work, and the millions who see zero positive results from their toil, it’s hard to feel sympathy for teachers who grouse about their work with the youth of our world. Is it easy work? No, and neither is hiking a high trail in the Grand Canyon, but the rewards are inestimable. At the end of most days, I sit in my empty classroom and feel utterly grateful. I wonder, over and over, how I got so lucky. How did the universe happen to set me down in this clean, well-lighted place where dozens of emergent human beings come to me each day for guidance, support, and companionship? Maybe it was a rough day, but, like a difficult day in the Grand Canyon, the roughness is smoothed out and softened, always, by the shear substance and magnificence of the work I am damn lucky to be doing. 

* * * * *
…that pathless coast,--
The desert and illimitable air,--
Lone wandering, but not lost.

-- William Cullen Bryant, “To a Waterfowl”

         In the above quote, the poet is talking about a bird, not a 9th grade English teacher, but I often go back to this poem as I try to find my way along the “pathless coast” of teaching teenagers. Of course, a visitor to my classroom might see me as the opposite of a “lone wandering” soul. I dress quite formally and try to present myself to the students as an erudite and skilled educator, one who knows precisely where he’s going and how to get there. I come to class equipped with a comprehensive lesson plan, and I do my best to march the scholars through the steps with a reasonable amount of coolness and clout. However, the fact is that I often feel more like a bird gone astray in a “desert of illimitable air” than a self-assured, proficient educator. There’s actually a lot of make-believe in my teaching: making believe I understand these kids, making believe I know what I’m doing, making believe I’m poised and self-assured, when in fact I’m just a befuddled rover in the great labyrinth of learning.  After 40+ years in the classroom, the “coast” of teaching, as I journey along it, seems more pathless, more incomprehensible than ever. Yes, I’ve learned a thousand tricks, techniques, tools, strategies, and tactics, but the grand mystery of it all remains. Indeed, it’s a fabulous enterprise we teachers are involved in – fabulous meaning literally like a fable or a legend. I often feel like I’m laboring in the old storybook world of Theseus as I find my way through the labyrinth of English teaching. I know there are holy grails hidden in this work we do, and I’m still loyally seeking them, but sometimes, the closer I get, the farther away I feel.  The task of teaching kids how to read deeply and write stylishly sometimes seems as “boundless” as the sky in Bryant’s poem, through which the waterfowl flies toward the sunset.  However, amidst the vague and unsure vastness of the world, the bird’s flight still seems strangely “certain” to the poet. That word is prominent in the poem – certain, like no doubt about it, assured, definite. The bird will get where it needs to go, and so – if I’m patient and keep making those detailed lesson plans – will I.

* * * * *

“But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year,
And a sphere.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I’m not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry:
I’ll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut.”
         --A squirrel talking to a mountain,
                  in Emerson’s “Fable”
         When I read this poem, I often picture one of my students speaking, instead of a squirrel, and I, the supposedly imposing English teacher, am the mountain being addressed. Sadly, my students may actually feel like squirrels as they scamper around trying to accomplish my obscure and troublesome tasks, and they may see me, their silvery, age-old teacher, as a somewhat bizarre mountain looming in their midst for 48 minutes each day.  Students probably often feel like lesser creatures when they’re laboring in the shadow of a teacher, especially one who’s old enough to be their grandfather. I can imagine that my students would empathize with the squirrel in Emerson’s poem, who is unabashed enough to speak his mind to the lordly mountain. I can imagine the students reminding me that, yes,
“all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year”,

including impish, obstreperous, and seriously talented teenagers. They might remind me that, though they don’t have as many degrees as I have, neither do I have as much spryness as they have.  Talents differ”, they would tell me. Yes, I can analyze a Wordsworth sonnet with dispatch, enjoy Shakespeare in a hurricane, and recite all the 10,000 grammar rules, but I can’t skateboard, dance for sixty straight minutes, laugh at just about anything, daydream castles and spaceships, do stupid stunts for laughs, or feel youthfulness flowing through my veins like an almighty river. They can’t diagram a 70-word sentence, but neither can I feel 70 freehanded years unfurling ahead of me.

* * * * *
         I’ve been repeatedly told, over the years, that I must keep in mind the many differences among all of my students, and I agree, but I must also remember that, in one sense, there are actually no differences whatsoever. One of the definitions for different is “separate”, and it is easy to drift into seeing my students as separate, distinct entities, each one an individual with unique skills and weaknesses. That, in fact, is the perception upon which our entire educational system, and our whole culture, seems to be based – that all of us, my students included, are separate, isolated individuals struggling to switch on our independent and inimitable lamps.  Of course, in order to participate dutifully and effectively in our educational system, I occasionally do have to think this way – that each student is different and distinct, and that I must help each of them go his or her own exclusive way in the world. It’s convenient to accept this approach – to play this game – because it helps the students find success in our artificial educational structures—success meaning simply high grades and excellent test scores. It’s somewhat like a mariner pretending that there are specific, separate “things” called currents in the ocean. This pretense definitely helps him navigate across an ocean, but at the same time he stays fully aware that there are, in reality, no such “things” as isolated currents – just a vast, unified ocean that seems to move in fairly consistent patterns. I guess I try to see each of my classes as a sort of human ocean (an immense one, I should add), in which the students together (not separately) make up the currents. For the sake of grades, tests, conferences, records, and so on, it’s convenient to think of the students as separate learners in their own separate seas of learning, but it’s just a bit of make-believe, a useful game. The reality is that my classes are uncharted teenage oceans, complete with storms and surf and doldrums and crazy currents. Morgan and Asia and Joseph are no more separate from each other than one current in the ocean is separate from another, or one wave from another. The students are part of life, and life, as science is revealing more and more clearly, is as interconnected as drops of water in a stream. It would be silly to give a grade to a single drop of water, and it seems silly to me to give grades to individual students. However, I do it, because that’s the game I have to play as I stand on the shore of a 9th grade class and admire the unsearchable sea in front on me.  

* * * * *
“Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”
            --Thoreau, in Walden, “Conclusion”

         There is one sense in which my students have total freedom in English class: they can think the thoughts of their choice. They can’t always act or speak exactly as they want, but there are no restrictions on their thinking. Their minds are as free as the boundless air. They can think, ponder, reflect, imagine, and ruminate as unreservedly as breezes blow. Perhaps I should occasionally remind my students of this grand fact, for nothing is more precious to young people than their freedom, and a feeling of complete mental liberty might make English class seem more brisk and bracing. If I remind my students, every now and then, that their thoughts are free to fly wherever they wish during my class, perhaps they’ll feel that rush of looseness and openness we all feel when we’re set free. You may worry that this could create distracted and day-dreamy students, but I would say, rather, that it would simply create freethinking students – kids who take pleasure in their minds’ ability to roam the universe of ideas. English class is concerned, above all, with words, and words are made of thoughts, so anything I can do to liberate the thoughts of my students will give a lift to my classes. Sure, there’s a chance their thoughts will float far away from the matter under discussion in class, but that’s a chance I’m happy to take. Give me—any day—uninhibited young thinkers who occasionally drift away from the lesson, over limited and locked-up thinkers who always follow the teacher’s line of thought like prisoners follow the jailer. 

* * * * *
         Every now and then, I remember to use silence to bring some intensity to the atmosphere in my classroom. I’ve always felt that, in teaching, silence has at least as much power as sound, and sometimes considerably more. Since the students hear teachers and each other talking almost nonstop throughout the day, any moment of silence can be a refreshing, almost shocking, break in the routine. In the students’ noisy world, a little silence can be like sunshine after hours of rain. Not many days ago, I read a poem aloud to a 9th grade class, and when I came to the end I simply stood in silence at the front of the room. I remained silent for only about twenty seconds, but I suspect it had a surprising effect on the kids. In their often strident and raucous lives, twenty seconds of silence can seem like time without end. As they were sitting silently and listening to the ticking of my classroom clock, they might have been thinking, “This is really strange”, and I’m okay with that. After all, ‘strange’ can also mean surprising, extraordinary, even astonishing—three adjectives any teacher would be proud to be associated with.

         It came to me today that teaching is somewhat like tossing pebbles from a boat into a lake. During each 48-minute class period, I sit in my tiny teacher-boat and throw stone after stone into the vast lake of my students’ lives. I toss in steps in the lesson, suggestions, statements, questions, reminders, reprimands, commands, and demands – one after the other, dozens and hundreds, maybe more than a thousand pebbles in each class. What’s interesting to realize is that every one of these pebbles has an effect on the students, just as every pebble sends out ripples in a lake.  All the hundreds of words I speak, gestures I make, smiles and frowns I show, are small stones that splash inside the students’ minds and hearts and instantly send waves rippling out.  It’s impossible to say what kind of effect these ripples will ultimately have on my students, but that they will have an effect is beyond question. Every ripple in a lake alters the lake, if only in the tiniest ways, and every pebble I flip out to my students modifies their young, sensitive lives, if just in minuscule and marginal ways. As I thought about this today, the unpredictability and uncertainty of it all was slightly unsettling. The truth is that most of the words, gestures, and expressions I use during class are casual, haphazard events. I plan a careful lesson each day, but once class starts, I begin tossing pebbles just about as fast as I can think. It’s a wonder my figurative teacher-boat doesn’t swamp and sink each day, what with all my arbitrary and incessant pebble-tossing.  Maybe I can change. Maybe I can slow down enough to at least periodically use some care in selecting a pebble, and maybe I can occasionally pause, just for a second or two, to see how the ripples shape themselves and start rolling out to some distant shore.

* * * * *
The other day, as I was pondering the old maxim “it’s only a game”, I was reminded that teaching is better pictured that way. In fact, I think the surest way to achieve true contentment is to view my classroom work not just as a game, but as a friendly, pleasant spectator sport, where I am both an active player and a bemused fan. Instead of seeing myself as part of an intensely serious contest, the results of which carry life-or-death implications, I need to occasionally step back and be an observer of the light-hearted game called education. I need to see my little “self” down there in the playing field of my classroom, dashing here and there, performing weird and wonderful feats, or just temporarily convalescing on the “bench” (my chair at my desk). I should cheer, boo, sigh, scream, or applaud for my “self” and the other players (my students), all the while remaining at ease and satisfied because, after all, it’s only a game. With that kind of a distant eyewitness viewpoint, I would, perhaps, eventually come to realize that all my daily doings and goings-on as a teacher, all my earnest endeavors and pursuits in the classroom, all my serious thoughts and aspirations about being the best teacher I can possibly be, are, in fact, merely part of a highly entertaining game – a game in which there are no losers. (The inventor and referee of the game is the Universe, and it only allows winning. Unfortunately, many of the contestants don’t realize that.) If something “bad” happens to my “self “– a boring class, an irate parent, a principal gone haywire — oh well, it’s just a game, and anyway, eventually I’ll see my self (and all my teammates and competitors) holding up the cup of victory, as usual. Sooner or later I’ll see, once more, that winning is the only possible outcome for the game of education, and that even failure, oddly enough, is a victory for learning. I’ll sit back, get out my binoculars, and continue watching Hamilton Salsich – so distant, small, and beautiful in this measureless arena owned by the Universe – playing the game of teaching in his intense, comfortable, and buoyant way.

* * * * *
         When I picture myself, which I occasionally do, as a heavily burdened, harried teacher laboring away like a self-sacrificing hero of some sort, that line of thinking is usually brought to a stop fairly quickly by the realization that, while I’m admiring my self-styled valiant efforts, other kinds of labor of more astonishing proportions are continually happening. For instance, while I’m carrying the supposedly grave weight of teaching teenagers, my heart is carrying a truly amazing responsibility – that of keeping me alive. In a typical 48-period English class, my loyal heart beats about 3,000 times, always in perfect rhythm, always pushing precisely the right amount of blood out to my cells. Not only that, my lungs faithfully rise and fall hundreds of times while I go about my allegedly prodigious task of teaching writing and reading.  While I’m just trying to get some kids to stay alert and learn a few skills, my heart and lungs are giving me the gift of life, over and over again. And then I look outside at the breezes and the clouds and the sky vanishing in the distance, and I wonder at the ceaseless work of nature. While I’m mentally commiserating with myself for the wearisome work I have to do for a few hours each day, the sun and wind and weather continue to do their truly epic work. When I’m slumped over my desk at lunch, wondering how I can possibly make it through my last two challenging classes, the earth, as it has done for about fifteen billion years, keeps working its way through space, dutifully carrying me and mountains and seas and a few billion other riders.

* * * * *
         I wonder if my students ever feel like flopping down in utter exhaustion after English class. When they walk out of the classroom, are their minds ever, so to speak, gasping for breath because of the intense brain workout they’ve experienced during my class? Do they ever feel like the class they just left was one of the most demanding ordeals they’ve ever been through?  I actually hope so. In a way, I wouldn’t mind if my classes had some similarities to the women’s Olympic10K cross-country ski race I watched this afternoon. As the competitors crossed the finish line, they collapsed with fatigue, leaning on their poles and struggling for breath. They had given all of their strength to doing their best, and all they could do at the end was stagger and slump in weariness. Why shouldn’t my students feel a kind of breathless fatigue at the end of English class? If I’m doing my job as their English teacher (or coach, as I often think of myself), shouldn’t I demand their absolute best at all times? Shouldn’t I expect them to drive their brains with the same intensity that the Swedish gold medal winner drove her body today? The ski race was a grueling test for the competitors, and maybe I should think of a 48-minute 9th grade English class that way. Maybe I’d like to see the kids come to class with severe and single-minded faces, the way they might approach the starting line of a punishing race. At the end of class, I could offer, perhaps, cups of ice water to refresh their worn out minds as they drag themselves out the door.

* * * * *
         Someone once told me that a teacher should be like an umbrella for his students, and I’ve been thinking about that analogy recently. An umbrella basically protects a person, gives a safe shelter, guards a person in unsettled situations – and that’s also what a teacher does. The world my teen-age students are growing up in is a turbulent one, and it is the responsibility of the school and its teachers to offer a safe haven for the students, a place where they can learn and grow in security. When they enter my classroom, my students need to know that there’s order and safekeeping here – that they can accomplish much because the “umbrella” of Mr. Salsich’s teaching is always there for shelter. Part of that sense of shelter comes from the fact that my classes are orderly affairs. Insecurity arises in young people when things are muddled and unruly – when they literally don’t know where they’re going or what will happen next. In my classroom, I need to provide an umbrella for my students’ sometimes stormy lives. I need to create an atmosphere of stability and consistency, a setting where they know exactly what the procedures are and exactly what they need to do. Indeed, even my hardest assignments can be a sort of umbrella. If my students are given clear (though perhaps complex) guidelines, and if the goals of the assignment are totally obvious and the necessary resources are available to them, then they will feel, surprisingly enough, secure. They will know precisely what needs to be done and how to do it. The umbrella of the well-designed assignment is there to keep out any confusion or uncertainty. A final point to make is that sometimes umbrellas are not needed. On sunny days, we can leave it at home, and in certain situations in the classroom, the students can be free to work without the specific guidance (protection) of the teacher (umbrella). That’s a good feeling for them and for me. They’re on their own, using their own resources and providing their own guidance, and I can put the umbrella away and simply watch.

* * * * *
by William Wordsworth

         The little hedgerow birds,
         That peck along the roads, regard him not.
         He travels on, and in his face, his step,
         His gait, is one expression: every limb,
         His look and bending figure, all bespeak 5
         A man who does not move with pain, but moves
         With thought. — He is insensibly subdued
         To settled quiet: he is one by whom
         All effort seems forgotten ; one to whom
         Long patience hath such mild composure given, 
         That patience now doth seem a thing of which
         He hath no need. He is by nature led
         To peace so perfect that the young behold
         With envy, what the Old Man hardly feels.

         I have loved this poem for many years, and have always secretly harbored the hope that I could someday be like Wordsworth’s “Old Man”, especially in my work as a teacher. As a senior citizen, I am already an officially old man, and I’d like to learn how to do oldness with the “patience” and “mild composure” of this man. I’m not sure why, but I’m quite happy to be an old teacher, perhaps for some of the same reasons that this man seems happy. As the years have passed, I have found more “settled quiet” in my teaching, more opportunity to “move[]/ With thought” than with stress and strain and pain. Teaching seems more like the capricious breezes of spring than the somewhat stormy seasons of my earlier years in the classroom. In a way, it’s even rather nice that my students, like the “hedgerow birds” in the poem, sometimes seem to not even notice me in the classroom. I don’t mean that they’re more disrespectful or unruly than in earlier years; in fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Like the poet’s old man, perhaps I don’t stand out in my classroom precisely because I fit in more now than in the early days of my career.  I’m no longer a grating, strident, and strange outsider to the kids, but simply an elderly teacher who quietly shares his insights with them. They “peck along the roads” of education, and I’m pecking along right beside them. Perhaps they’re even a little comforted by the “long patience” I’ve gained over the years. I work hard, but I no longer do much rushing or dashing or stressing. Teaching has become such a gentle process for me that, indeed, it sometimes feels like “[a]ll effort seems forgotten”.

“…Who rides his sure and even trot
While the world now rides by, now lags behind.”
            -- George Herbert, “Constancy”
         Of all the virtues I admire in good teachers, none is more special to me than constancy. One definition is “the quality of being faithful and dependable”, which is exactly the way I hope my students would describe me. I don’t especially care if I’m an exciting or funny or creative or even “excellent” teacher (whatever that means) – but I very much want to be a faithful and dependable one.  Amid the young scholars’ sometime mystifying and mixed-up lives, I want their English teacher to ride his “sure and even trot” day after day.  If some things fall apart around them, well, at least Mr. Salsich will be the same. Of course, being the same could mean being boring, but it doesn’t have to. It could simply mean being dependable – being a sort of solid rock in a fairly tumultuous world, a strong tree in the blustery lives of the students.  Actually, “strong” may be exactly the right synonym for constancy in this regard. A teacher with constancy is a strong teacher – one who stays faithful to his principles in the midst of distress and distractions, one whom students can depend upon to be basically the same today and tomorrow as yesterday. Since there is more than enough caprice in my students’ lives, I don’t need to add any more by changing my behaviors and routines every other week. I guess I’m more interested in being a sound and steady teacher than an exciting one – more like a well-built building than the whimsical weather. “While the world now rides by, now lags behind,” may Mr. Salsich stay the same, a constant and true old teacher who has a few simple things to share with young scholars of English.

* * * * *
“People who share a cell in the Bastille or are thrown together on an uninhabited island, if they do not immediately fall to fisticuffs, will find some possible ground of compromise. They will learn each other’s ways and humours so as to know where they must go warily and where they may lean their whole weight.”
                  -- Robert Louis Stevenson, “Virginibus Puerisque”

         Happily, my classroom is not much like a prison cell or an isolated island. There’s a fair amount of sparkle and merriment in my classes, and I don’t think my students feel much like inmates (even though the hard labor I force upon them may often seem punishing). There’s usually a spirit of comfortableness in my classes that would be hard to find on a deserted island.  Yet, in a very real way, my students and I are strangers when we meet each day, strangers in the sense that what we show to each other, what we say and how we act, is just the slight surface of our vast and baffling lives. We actually know no more about each other than we know about the reaches of outer space. It’s as if we all stumble into Room 2 and greet each other afresh each day, washed up and stunned on an empty island. However, as Stevenson suggests, we usually “find some possible ground of compromise.” I’m a well-weathered senior citizen and they are unsullied, up-and-coming children, but we slowly “learn each other’s ways”, make concessions, and find the middle ground. I learn to “go warily” in certain areas with the students, and they learn, I’m sure, when to tiptoe around me. Of course, I also steadily discover where and when I can “lean [my] whole weight” on the young people – let the influence of 68 years of learning and living gently but relentlessly urge them onward. We’re way different from each other – teenage children and a windswept old guy, restless kids and a stress-free granddad. We’re basically strangers sitting together in a small classroom each day, but we usually find Stevenson’s “possible ground” where sitting sometimes becomes sharing.

* * * * *
“…himself he feels,          
In those vast regions where his service lies,          
A freeman, wedded to his life of hope          
And hazard, and hard labour interchanged          
With that majestic indolence so dear          
To native man.”
--Wordsworth, Book VII, “The Prelude”

         My work as an English teacher takes place in a small, nondescript classroom on a commonplace country road, and yet I often (almost every day) feel like I’m laboring in “vast regions”, to quote from Wordsworth’s lines above. He’s talking about solitary shepherds among the hills and valleys of England, but I might as well be a shepherd as I attempt to herd, persuade, guide, and sometimes simply drive my young students toward the goals I set for them. It’s often a solitary feeling, too – the sense that it’s just the students and I alone in a wilderness of spoken and written words. We wander here and there in our discussions as we try to find meaning in poems and stories, with me circling, prodding, containing, rousing, and stimulating. As the students write their weekly essays, they, too, probably feel like shepherds – or border collies – as they attempt to push their unruly words into reasonably recognizable paragraphs. However – though I’m not sure the students feel this way – I feel like a total “freeman” as I go about this sometimes lonely, hit-and-miss work of teaching. There’s “hazard” in the job, of course (wilting lessons, inscrutable students, parents on the prowl), but there’s more than enough “hope” (lessons like missiles, kids with grins to give away) to balance things out. I put in a great amount of “hard labour”, but I always find, to my amazement, a feeling of “majestic indolence” floating through me at odd moments during class. I often pause in the midst of a class and take a few seconds, privately, to express my thanks for my good life as a classroom shepherd. While kids in my care are sharing thoughts about a topic, I sometimes sit smiling in the classroom rocking chair—a fortunate, privileged, prosperous 68-year-old guide and guardian. 

* * * * *
“…Till the whole cave, so late a senseless mass,                      
Busies the eye with images and forms          
Boldly assembled…”
         -- Wordsworth, Book VII, “The Prelude”

         I sometimes feel like I’m entering a dark cave when I walk into my classroom. It’s not an especially dark room, but a strange kind of figurative darkness exists when I think of the inscrutability of both my students and the subject I teach. After all these years of teaching, I still find teenagers as obscure as the darkest cave, and nothing, to me, seems more impenetrable than some of our greatest literature—a Hopkins poem, for instance, or a story by Faulkner. In spite of all I’ve learned about teaching English over the years, I’m as much “in the dark” as I was when I started back in 1965, the only difference being that now I know I’m in the dark. It often reminds me of the above passage, in which Wordsworth speaks of “curious travelers” who enter a cave and, as their eyes slowly grow accustomed to the darkness, gradually see astonishing “images and forms” along the walls. As a teacher, I have definitely been a “curious traveler”, a wanderer in the wilds of English education, and much of my time, it seems, has been spent slowly adjusting to the darkness of my own ignorance. Even with the most carefully planned lesson, I often feel like I’m tiptoeing through a shadowy cave, watching and hoping for pathways and truths to slowly reveal themselves. It reminds me of a time near the start of my career when a veteran spelunker led my students and me into a cave in Missouri. When we entered a section of almost total darkness, we could see nothing at all, which is often the way I feel about ten minutes into a lesson. However, as we patiently waited for our eyes to adjust, we slowly began to see strange “images and forms” along the walls of the cave, fantastic shapes that had been hidden from us. “See?” our guide said. “All you have do is wait” – and I’ve taken his advice all these years. Literature and teenagers are as murky as ever, but if I wait in a good-natured way, wonders usually reveal themselves. 

* * * * *
         I’ve been meditating lately on the importance of stability in my classroom. One definition for the word stable is “resistant to change of position or condition; not easily moved or disturbed,” and I would hope that my students see my English class as being stable in that sense – as a class that’s carefully planned and solidly constructed and therefore not likely to be capricious and confusing. The idea of trust is important here: I want my students to trust that the foundations of my English class in May are going to be exactly the same as they were in September, and, more importantly, to trust that they can take risks in my class because the foundations of the class are stable enough to support uncertain, touch-and-go thinking. An even more interesting definition of the “stable” is “maintaining equilibrium; self-restoring”, as in “a stable aircraft”. This aspect of stability is vital to my classroom. My teaching must definitely be “self-restoring” – able, like an airplane, to quickly right itself after a stumble or a mistake or a poorly taught lesson, and get back on course. My students, too, must learn to be stable in this sense. It might, in fact, be helpful for them to think of themselves as well-balanced airplanes, able to maintain a fair amount of steadiness through any kind of “rough weather” school might throw at them. Finally, a third definition for “stable” is “enduring or permanent”, as in “a stable peace”. I hope my students feel this kind of stability in my English classes. I hope they sense, if only occasionally, that what they are learning in my class will endure after the class ends in June. We certainly don’t have a stable peace in the world, but perhaps I can create, in my classroom, a degree of academic stability for my students – most particularly, an understanding of our language that will endure in at least a somewhat lasting way.

* * * * *
         The other day, after a student had shared her interpretation of a poem in class, I replied, “That’s a really surprising idea” – but it occurred to me later that all ideas are surprising. Because we grow so accustomed to ideas, their inimitability and richness often go unnoticed, but the fact is that each idea is a pristine marvel.  It seems clear to me that every idea is totally new, never been thought in just that way in the history of thinking. A thought may be similar to other thoughts, but in certain, sometimes secret ways, it has its own matchless style and substance. Every thought is like every moment – fresh, unblemished, and ready to do its irreplaceable work. Luckily for me, I spend my days in the classroom surrounded by the steady streaming of these new ideas – hundreds and thousands of them. In a 48-minute English class, my students and I together might produce 37,000 ideas, a figurative Mississippi River of spanking new thoughts surging through the classroom and our lives. If I thought about it as I was teaching, I might feel utterly overwhelmed by the reality of so much fresh and forceful thinking.

* * * * *
         Sometimes it seems clear to me that my students and I are like-minded. That may seem strange to say, since I am a 68-year-old wizened, old-world teacher and they are newly blossoming adolescents, but still, a strange similarity seems to exist among our thoughts. We seem to think a similar mixture of apprehensive, promising, anxious, and optimistic thoughts. They sometimes feel afraid, as I do, and, like me, they occasionally feel full of assurance and security.  I often wonder if thinking is a kind of ocean, and my students and I are simply waves and swells in that single ocean. It’s easy to get spellbound by the notion that we’re all separate thinkers doing our own unique kind of thinking, but to me, that seems far from the truth. It’s also easy to look out at the ocean from the beach and pretend that each wave is a separate entity, but in that case we know it’s a pretense, because we know the ocean is a single vast force, of which waves are simply phases. Thinking, it seems to me, is also a single force, of which my students and I are phases, parts, and stages. The fears and hopefulness I feel are similar to the fears and hopefulness they feel, but just in different parts of the measureless sea of thoughts.

* * * * *
“ … her pliancy had ended in her sometimes taking shapes of
surprising definiteness.”
-- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         As the years have passed, I’ve tried, with some success, to become more pliable in my teaching, which is why I was particularly struck when I read the above words today. In the novel, Mrs. Gascoigne’s pliancy is not always constructive, but for a teacher it can be a useful and rewarding attribute. I guess I’ve gradually learned to be more elastic, bending and bowing with the students as we do our work. I’ve become better at adjusting and fine-tuning myself during a 48-minute class. When I’m teaching, I often think of trees and sailors – trees for their unfailing flexibility in winds of all kinds, and sailors for their judicious management of sails in shifting weathers. I picture myself as an old but limber beech tree – limbs grown long and large over the years, but still as flexible as ever, bending stylishly in breezes or storms. Teaching English to teenagers can be an unsettled, even tempestuous, enterprise, and suppleness is a necessity. I’ve noticed that old trees sometimes bend the best, and I’m hoping that might be true for old teachers – and old sailors, too. I see myself, on certain days, as a sailor in a small ship with my students. Whatever the “weather” of the classroom throws at us – rowdy ideas, unmanageable lesson plans, and assorted other surprises – the old teacher-captain has to be pliant enough to change plans, alter course, shift sails, and work with, instead of against, the conditions present in the classroom.  I think of myself, sometimes, as a kind of “Elastic-man”, able to change shape and style at will, always ready to coil and curl and change directions as the students and I work through a lesson plan. Perhaps I should do mental aerobics before class, just to prepare my mind to be extra-flexible in the face of my fanciful and capricious teenager thinkers.

* * * * *
“Mr. Quallon the banker kept a generous house.”
--George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         Mr. Quallon kept a generous house in part because he was wealthy, and I hope that, even in my fairly tightfisted school, I can keep a generous classroom. To me, that would mean a kind and big-hearted classroom, one that benevolently welcomes all kinds of kids and ideas. It would mean a charitable classroom, where the students and teacher are as interested in giving as in getting, as willing to distribute as to receive. It would mean, too, an abundant classroom, containing more than enough support and payoffs for everyone, enough honors for one and all to make students and teacher perhaps actually take sincere pleasure in their stay there, perhaps even think of it as a satisfying place for a stopover each day.

* * * * *
“It was literally a new light for them to see him in.”
--George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         I was struck by the above sentence this morning, because it reminded me of the kind of teacher I hope to one day become. I hope I can grow to consistently see the new lights that shine on (and in) my students each day – lights that enable me to be grateful for them in new ways. The lackluster overhead lights in my classroom shed the same featureless light down on all of us, so it’s important that I notice the other kinds of “lights” that illuminate my students. It’s important that I see each of them as surrounded by their own distinctive light, one that shifts and varies and shines in new ways moment by moment. And of course, the special light of their individual lives is always there, always glowing. Each of my students is an assemblage of gifts and powers beyond belief – a work of untainted wonder that can’t be replicated. They each think thoughts and feel feelings whose lights could light up many classrooms. They are youthful dynamos of undreamed of mental and emotional power, able to transform lives (their own and others’) with their own minds and hearts. Alas, I’m often unable to see or appreciate these powers – these lights that shine around and inside my students. I’m like a blind man who doesn’t know there’s a stunning sunset in front of him. At any given time, there are many young lights flaring and flashing in my classroom, but it takes wide-open eyes to see them.

* * * * *
“Klesmer’s thoughts had flown off on the wings of his own
statement, as their habit was.”
-- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         Don’t thoughts often do this – winging away as soon as we’ve put them into words, soaring off to far-flung worlds of new thoughts? And isn’t this one of the best things about thoughts – their restlessness, their ability to travel to mental places we never knew existed?  I’m lucky to see and experience this phenomenon everyday in English class. My students and I give voice to innumerable thoughts each day, and all those thoughts, I’m sure, take wing as soon as the words leave our lips. They flutter off to who knows where, with us following in our whimsical ways. In this manner, we let our thoughts lead to other thoughts, which make new words for us to speak, which set more thoughts soaring off in search of more new thoughts to make more new spoken words. It’s a high-ceilinged, haphazard, freestyle sort of experience, this thinking in English class – somewhat like spring breezes starting countless other breezes blowing. Growing up, I was often advised to discipline my thinking, to tighten the reins on my thoughts, and no doubt there’s a place in school for that kind of regimented thinking – but there’s also a place for liberated, all-over-the-place thinking. Especially in English class, adventurous thoughts shouldn’t have to stay in birdcages.

* * * * *
“Gwendolen did not greatly distinguish herself in
these first experiments, unless it were by the lively grace with which she took her comparative failure.”
-- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         At the end of each day, I hope I can award myself an ‘A+’ for my failures. Like most mere mortals, I fail many times each day, and I hope I can do it each time with “lively grace”, as Eliot puts it. It’s easy to be nimble and bubbly when life is falling into its perfect places, but I want to be good company even when much of a school day seems lost in disappointment. When I read this passage today, I pictured a dancer moving across the floor with “lively grace”, and I wondered if it’s possible for a person who has gravely failed to behave in a similarly balanced and beautiful way. If a visitor came to my classroom just after a lesson plan had badly broken down, I would hope they would see a teacher who seemed poised and brave. I would want them to see a teacher who knew that his failure would foster fresh insights and new occasions for success, and who thus seemed relaxed and ready for triumphs. 

* * * * *
         I often feel like a traveler as I make my way through the English curriculum, and yesterday, leafing through the dictionary, I discovered that the word “travel” derives from “travail”, which originally grew out of the Latin word “trepalium”, meaning “an instrument of torture”.  Strange, that traveling originally meant suffering – that getting from one place to another was initially connected with trouble and tribulation. But perhaps it’s not so strange, at least when it comes to English class, where my students sometimes stagger under the weight of cumbersome novels and solemn essay assignments. Quite often, my course is plain hard work – not torture, exactly, but seriously irksome labor. When we work our way through a poem together, I sometimes picture my students as trekkers trying out new trails on the sides of a mountain, huffing and puffing and praying for it all to end. I’m sure my class sometimes feels like torture to the students, but, oddly enough, there’s a good side to that word, too. When a guy says he’s gone through torture because of his love for a woman, the torture is perhaps of a sweet kind, like sailing successfully through a storm or ascending the far peaks of the Rockies. Some torture is worth it. Reading King Lear is not exactly a kick-up-your-heels kind of thing, but the rewards are generous, as I hope they are in English class as we travel the often nameless and trying trails.

* * * * *

“Her vomit full of bookes and papers was.”
         --Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 1

         Going back through a bit of Spenser this morning, I came upon these lines and, oddly enough, they brought to mind the tens of millions of students who have taken English courses in high school and college. Surely many of them enjoyed the “bookes and papers” they were required to read and write, but just as surely many of them felt, upon finally graduating, that they’d like to gag and throw up and leave it all behind. Why, I wonder, do so many English departments cram students to the point of choking with literary works and writing assignments – and what is their motivation? Do they think that shoving novels at students at the rate of 50 or more pages per night will actually benefit them? Do they actually believe that making students slog out stacks of literary essays every semester will produce people who enjoy writing? Why do we compel our students to run a high-speed, frenzied marathon of reading and writing in English class? Thoreau said that a great book should be read about as slowly as the author wrote it, but many English departments, as far as I can tell, have reversed his wise advice. Many of us seem more interested in rapid reading and speedy writing than in the kind of measured and carefully considered efforts that bring out the best in books and in students’ writing.  If Thoreau were sitting in an English class today, he might still be savoring the first few pages of Jane Eyre when the teacher announces that Chapter 10 is due tomorrow.  As the years have passed, I have tried, with modest success, to work against this crazed devotion to haste. In my classes, we read as few books as possible as slowly as possible. I’m more interested in how carefully the students read than in how much they read. When I assign pages, I assume the students will read every sentence, every word, with total attentiveness, and that they will examine and re-examine the more bountiful sentences (of which there are many in any significant literary work).  Does this mean I am failing to prepare the students for the sometimes hysterical pace of higher-level classes? No doubt – but I console myself by remembering that I am preparing them for higher-level devotion to deep reading and insightful writing – the kind of reading and writing that fosters nourishment rather than nausea.

* * * * *
“He was early impassioned by ideas, and burned his fire on those heights.”
         -- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         When I’m teaching a class, it sometimes suddenly comes to me that I’m doing Mickey Mouse stuff – striking small matches for the students when I should be setting serious fires. So often, my lessons seem to be about the little details of English teaching – comma rules, participles, point of view, setting, and such. I regularly find myself slogging with a class through the relative dreariness of literary terminology and grammar guidelines, as the students slowly slip to the wayside in drowsiness. I always have the best intentions when I’m planning my curriculum, but as the weeks pass, the comparative unimportance of many of my lessons becomes uncomfortably clear.   Ideas are what English class should be mostly focused on, not niceties like the ins and outs of punctuation rules.  My students and I read stories and poems packed with inspiration, and that’s the fire I should be fanning. Certainly the technical aspects of English can’t be ignored, but most of my teaching should be done on “those heights” where sizeable ideas can be set aflame.

* * * * *

“Talk is fluid, tentative, continually “in further search and progress;” while written words remain fixed, become idols even to the writer … and preserve flies of obvious error in the amber of the truth.”
         --Robert Louis Stevenson, “Talk and Talkers”

         It’s too bad a Pulitzer Prize isn’t given for talking, because there’s something artistic and arresting about talking at its best. On most days in English class I see this phenomenon – the full and flowing creation of spoken words. The students and I talk from the moment we enter class – words leading to other words, words pushing each other into sentences, words roving out to the frontiers of fresh ideas.  As Stevenson suggests, there’s nothing stagnant or lackluster in spirited talk. When sincere students and their teacher start sharing thoughts, who knows where the words will run or what new borders they’ll cross. Thousands of words are spoken in every English class, most of them filled full with the power of invention, most of them free and ready for fun. It’s a good kind of creation. Of course, there’s also a kind of talk that’s artificial and fairly useless – merely the motoring of idle minds. Hopefully, that kind of chatter doesn’t happen often in my classes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want whimsy and flights of fancy in our discussions. Talkers, by nature, are inventors, and inventors need the liberty to let loose.

* * * * *
“Her thoughts generally were the oddest mixture of clear-eyed acumen and blind dreams.”
         -- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

         As a teacher, I hope my thoughts can be like Maggie Tulliver’s in Eliot’s novel – a mishmash of realism and reverie. Certainly I must stay focused on the everyday necessities of English teaching, but I never want to abandon my gift for far-flung daydreaming and air-castle-building. Teaching, especially English teaching, must be founded on both practicality and pipe-dreaming, both a willingness to do the necessary step-by-step plodding and a keenness for jumping off the edge into deep water. It’s my responsibility to teach the proper procedures for punctuating a sentence, but it’s also my responsibility to dream up daring lessons and  heroic assignments now and then.  I often wonder if some veteran English teachers find their days drifting into tedium as the years pass – and if they do, I can recommend Maggie’s way of thinking.  We need to have at least as many “blind dreams” as orderly lesson plans if we are to keep our teaching infused with airiness and sparkle. When planning a lesson, perhaps we should occasionally stretch out at night in the grass and give the stars the duty of deciding how we proceed – or perhaps our 10-year-old child could choose precisely what 9th graders would love to learn about the poems of Emily Dickinson. Good teaching requires discipline and doggedness, but it also requires a willingness to take wing now and then and shout to your students to follow.  

* * * * *
         As the weeks of a school year pass, there are many classroom situations both my students and I would like to escape from, including ramshackle lesson plans, stifling air, and – sporadically – overpowering weariness. Occasionally in Room 2, we’re faced with conditions which seem to call for instant flight—times when we’d all like to be anywhere but my classroom. Strangely enough, however, it’s times like those when my students and I, if we’re watchful, can catch sight of an important purpose of education - – learning how to stay instead of run.  It’s a hard lesson to learn, for running away from difficult conditions is a widespread custom among humans, but in my small classroom in the country, perhaps I can offer some encouragement to my students – and myself – to stand and fight rather than run and hide. There are many situations in class that my students might surely call insufferable – going over grammar guidelines for the zillionth time, listening to Mr. Salsich explain yet again how to write a good closing paragraph, examining the crowded infrastructure of a James Joyce short story. If I can demonstrate a quiet endurance and open-mindedness when classroom conditions seem oppressive to me, perhaps my students will be able to learn something about calmly “staying” when things seem tiresome and everlasting to them. Staying is a vital skill for an English student and teacher – staying with a written sentence until it’s transparent and graceful, staying with a page in a novel until nothing’s left but the wisdom of it, staying with a lesson plan until it rises above all the others you’ve ever made. It takes serenity and persistence, two of the major qualities of a flourishing adult, but this staying ability can be learned and loved, including during English class.

* * * * *
         Having just come from a faculty meeting, I’m now sitting in my empty classroom thinking about the whole idea of meetings. When I meet people, or with people, I come into their presence – and the word “presence” seems significant there.  Truly being in the presence of a group of people means being totally there with them—in their company, in their circle or set. You might say I belong with them. The word “presence” derives from the Latin word for “being”, which suggests that if I wish to be truly present with a group, I should actually be there with them – body, mind, and heart – not miles away on the flights of daydream and reverie. Instead of going over innumerable mental tasks in my head during a meeting – to-do’s, wants, regrets, shoulda’s, woulda’s, coulda’s—I should actually be present ­ at the meeting – totally, ardently, actively.  Unfortunately, I was far from present at today’s faculty meeting. I might as well have been on a mountain peak in Peru. My body was there in its pink shirt and blue bow tie, but my mind and heart were drifting around the universe somewhere. I wasted my time and slighted my colleagues. It makes me wonder how often I’ve met with students in class but actually been far-gone on desires and dreams. Maybe some folks should get their money back.

* * * * *
“… [as] unobtrusive as the wafted odor of roses.”
         -- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
         I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that I’m against pushing of almost any kind, including the kind I used to do as a teacher. In the early years of my career, I was very much into pushing kids into becoming successful English students. I guess I pictured myself as something like a heavy equipment operator, my job being to figuratively move, shove, pull, thrust, and impel my students to achieve the goals of the syllabus. I was a pusher of the first order. Everything I did in the classroom resembled snowplowing more than genuine teaching. A teacher who constantly pushes his students is an obtrusive teacher – one who unceremoniously encroaches upon the students instead of just unpretentiously teaching them.  I was an insolent, bad-mannered teacher, in the sense that I didn’t much care what the kids were feeling or thinking; I had a syllabus to teach, and everything else be damned.  I was an intruder rather than a teacher. Luckily, it’s different nowadays. I was struck this morning by the passage from Eliot above, because now, in my 42nd year of teaching, I guess I try to teach by wafting rather than pushing. I think more good things happen in the universe by drifting, floating, gliding, or hovering, than by goading and ramming – and so I try to teach like the universe acts. The lessons I want to teach will have a far greater effect if they sort of inconspicuously float into the students’ lives instead of battering and pummeling them. I’d like them to come to understand a poem the way they might slowly but surely come to take pleasure in the ambiance of a forest, almost without knowing they’re doing it. I’d like the teacher in Room 2 to be as unobtrusive as a breeze that, while it goes largely unnoticed, unassumingly does exactly what it’s designed to do.           

* * * * *

         I am not a Christian or a church-going person of any type, but I might still be called a “quietist”, at least in my teaching. “Quietism” was a 17th century Christian movement that encouraged the abandonment of personal will and the quiet acceptance of the way things are, which fairly accurately describes my approach to teaching. As my 40+ years in the classroom have passed, my individual will has continued to slip more and more to the wayside, leaving mostly just an inquisitive interest in what’s going to happen next. I guess I’ve slowly come to realize that, even after all these years, my pocket-sized personal wisdom tells me very little about the real truths of teaching. I’ve learned, too, that there’s another kind of wisdom, an immense kind, that knows everything about teaching, and that I may as well put my little self aside and let that wisdom do its good work.  I’m not talking here about God or some mysterious supernatural power – just about opening myself up to the wisdom that awaits people who, like the Quietists, finally get their private egos, or wills, out of the way. The education of a human being is a bizarre and bottomless task, and to pretend that I can manipulate it with my own fierce but measly will is the height of craziness. To resist any pedagogical methods except those that I personally like, and to accept only results that I privately sketch out, is mind-boggling foolishness. Instead, these days I quietly listen for understanding as I work through the daily lessons. I try to be more accepting of the countless educational miracles that happen in my classes, most of which I didn’t (and couldn’t possibly) plan for. I hope to gradually understand that being humbly attentive to what’s actually happening is sometimes better than being confidently single-minded about what I want to happen.  

* * * * *
         As a teacher, I have to remember that speech doesn’t always have to be spoken. There are times during class when, though my students are silent and seemingly impassive, the expression on their faces speaks a clear message of quiet interest. It’s like sunlight shining behind a motionless screen of trees: you know it’s there, silent but staying strong in the background. At times, a visitor might think my students are thoroughly uninterested  (and at times they definitely are), but I can sometimes almost hear the concealed voice of curiosity in their soundless faces. Many teenage students, when they’re in class, are like trees on windless days. The limbs and leaves move only slightly and almost indiscernibly, and the students’ voices are hushed, as if both trees and kids are sleeping – but all the while immeasurable forces are flowing underneath. Sometimes I walk among the taciturn scholars like I’m strolling in the park. I enjoy the company of quiet, beautiful trees and wise, silent children – and I listen for what both of them are saying.

* * * * *
         Here’s one of the best compliments my students could offer me: “That was a surprising class, Mr. Salsich.” Surprises have always had magical power for me, the way they can suddenly blow apart a lackluster moment into something stunning. I’ll be floating along the supposedly tedious river of my life when, out of the blue, a surprise alters everything. It might be true for most of us: surprises (at least the good ones) can transform dullness into delight. Since my English class constantly leans dangerously close to dreariness, I’m always hopeful that surprises will occasionally seize the young students. Interestingly, the word “surprise” derives from the Latin word for “seize”, as in “The enemy forces surprised (i.e., seized) the castle.” I like to picture my students sitting impassively in Room 2 when, with great suddenness, a line in a poem or a phrase in a story takes unexpected hold of them. I picture them looking at me in stunned surprise, as if to say, “Help, Mr. Salsich! Something has seized me!” Certainly I would rush to their aid (in my best senior citizen manner) if a human intruder tried to get hold of them, but a literary prowler is more than welcome - -the kind that pounces on and reshuffles minds and hearts. 

* * * * *
         It occurred to me this afternoon that waving is what my students and I should be doing more of in English class. I was sitting in a friend’s house, watching some tall trees waving in the wind, and I was impressed with how stress-free they seemed as they swayed and slanted this way and that.  They were waving the way waves in the ocean do – with total spontaneity and ease. Of course, sometimes, as the wind strayed away, they came to rest for a few moments, and their rest also seemed simple and trouble-free. Watching from the window, I realized that my students and I could learn a lesson from these compliant trees. We are all faced with the inconstant winds of responsibilities, assignments, schedules, successes, and disillusionments, and our best approach is to adjust ourselves to their quirks and foibles. We need to bend and bow, not diffidently but daringly, like the trees that lean almost, but not quite, to cracking.  When we’re reading, we must flow with the waving of the words, getting lost sometimes in the movements of phrases and paragraphs. When we’re writing, our thoughts blow strong and soft, blustery and easygoing, and our best bet is to tag along behind, doing what they do, writing the words they declare.  It’s interesting, too, to think of another meaning for “wave” – that motion of our arms and hands that signals hello or goodbye. Sometimes I wave to my students as they leave the classroom, a small gesture to show, perhaps, that I like to live like trees do. My arm waves back and forth like life moves in waves all day long, in English class and out.
* * * * *

 “Will was his guide … “
         -- Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queenen

         Like Spenser’s Red Cross Knight, who gets into trouble when he lets his will guide him, it’s obvious to me that using my headstrong, badly informed will as a teaching guide has usually led me down dead-end, and sometimes ruinous, streets.  I’ve often been on my high horse as a teacher, galloping wherever my stubborn resolve sends me, usually ignoring any greater wisdom than my own undersized knowledge of how things should be. More often than not, I let the reins on my will go slack and it careers wherever it wishes through lessons and curriculums. You might ask what else there is for a teacher to follow than his own personal will- power and determination, his own good thinking, and I would answer by quoting a sign often seen at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: My best thinking got me here.  To be honest, I’ve learned from experience that my best personal thinking is about as impressive as a small pile of soil beside the mountains of the West.  All the scrapes and troubles of my life have been caused by following the leadership of my finest thoughts. They’ve led me with bold words and bright signals, and usually I’ve ended up in a morass that seemed strangely similar to where I started. So no, I don’t trust my own thinking or my own supposedly sensible free will, and yes, there is a better way. There’s an extensive and good-natured spirit of wisdom always around us, and I’ve been trying to stay open to it, instead of to my closed-off and insufficient personal thoughts. Clouds follow the weather patterns wherever they lead, and I guess I’m trying to follow the movements of a larger wisdom instead of my fairly meager little mind.

* * * * *

“Those who trust us educate us.”
         -- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         I imagine teenage students are somewhat stunned whenever they come upon a teacher who actually trusts them. In their often shaky relations with teachers (and most adults), the kids probably receive genuine trust from their distrustful instructors only intermittently. Adolescent students are most likely thought of more often as prospective offenders than promising scholars, which is why many of us teachers tie them securely to rules and regulations rather than releasing them to their innate sense of responsibility and correctness. We don’t trust the students because we fear what might come to pass if we did.  I’m no different than most, being usually a little leery of adolescent craziness blossoming in the classroom when my back is turned. However, I’m slowly learning to care for my students the way I cared for my four children when they were learning to walk – by trusting that they can and will do what’s required of them. When they were ready to unsteadily try their first steps, I had to trust that they could and would do it. I had to stand aside and consent to their right to be their own little best selves and perhaps fail gallantly. There were many failures, of course, just as there are occasional failures when I trust my students. They sometimes slide off into youthful madness and disregard, for which they receive just consequences, and from which they learn of the sting that comes from mistreating a teacher’s trust. Like my children, however, the students continue to receive my trust, for how else can they continue striding – or staggering – toward trustworthy adulthood?

* * * * *

         After a hard day’s labor in the classroom, I sometimes wonder how long it will take for my carefully planned lessons to utterly vanish from my students’ minds. Will some of them disappear from their lives as fast as short-lived spring breezes? Will some last only as long as the shapes of clouds, which fade away almost as fast as they form? Or, if I’m lucky, will some lessons be as enduring as banana peels, which experts tell us take up to five weeks to decompose? It’s an honest question to ask when you’re teaching teenagers, whose lives transform as swiftly as weather patterns. I spend many hours each week painstakingly preparing what I believe are significant lesson plans, but, in my more skeptical moments, I think I may as well be preparing bubbles to blow into the breeze. As Emily Dickinson would know, my students’ brains are “wider than the sky”, providing plenty of room for my diminutive lesson plans to drift out, pop, and pass away. However, there may be hope. Scanning the Internet this morning, I came upon the fact that disposable diapers take upwards of 500 years to decompose. If diapers can withstand the years, why not lessons on symbolism and semicolons? Perhaps, without my realizing it, the lessons I share with my students each day settle inside them like diapers at the dump, silently persisting, refusing to go away. Perhaps years from, even generations from now, the remnants of a lesson on using participles may give off steam enough to set some future life in a fresh direction.

* * * * *


“These, these will give the world another heart,   
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings? —————   
Listen awhile, ye [teacher], and be dumb.”
         Keats, “Addressed to the Same”

         I took the liberty of replacing “nations” with “teacher” in the above lines, because as a teacher of teenagers, I do have to learn to “listen awhile”, and perhaps “be dumb”, meaning silent and fascinated, a little more often.  I think of my students when I read the first line – “these” meaning the feisty, foolhardy, wise, and cunning kids I am fortunate to spend some time with each day. They may frustrate me with their stretches of impassive silence and bewildering craziness, but I have no doubt that, as the years pass, they will indeed “give the world another heart.” I may be in charge of my students now, but in the future, it is they who will provide the “pulses” for the life of humankind. I need to simply shut up more often during class and listen for the early “hum” of those pulses. It’s sadly true that I get so busy with my ten thousand school day tasks and responsibilities that I miss many chances to catch the interesting buzzings of my students’ thoughts.  There are “mighty workings” going on in the minds of each of my students (to doubt that would be the height of either smugness or blindness), and I need to stand back and stay silent more often, listening respectfully to the youth of our world. “They’re just kids”, someone may say, and I would say, “Yes, and a sunrise is just a sunrise.” A new day dawns for humanity tomorrow and ten years from now, and these restless and perceptive kids in my classroom will help lift whatever kind of sun rises.

* * * * *


         For my morning workout today, I walked the hilly street near my house, and the relentless rush-hour traffic reminded me of the mayhem I sometimes make for myself in my work as an English teacher.  The cars were rushing past me in a noisy hubbub, as if each driver was desperate to reach some special destination, and I occasionally see some of that desperation in my teaching. The cars were speeding up and down the hill the way I tear through topics in a lesson plan every now and then, as though just touching a topic is the same as teaching it. Like breakneck driving, that kind of hasty teaching makes no sense to me. This morning I felt for the drivers as they dashed who knows where, because I know what it’s like to get awestruck by speed: how fast can I do this lesson, how many stories can we read this semester, how many literary terms can we look at today, how many pages of this novel can I read tonight? Thankfully, I’m usually a reasonably undisturbed teacher, preferring purposefulness to haste and hurry, so the speediness trap doesn’t catch me too often. Unlike the cars this morning, I’d rather linger and hang back with my students. Reading and writing, after all, are chores of thoughtfulness and attention, not speed and tumult.

* * * * *

         Today, as I was driving to school, I misinterpreted something I saw, a mistake that happens to me way too often in the classroom. I was on the highway in the bright sunshine, when I saw, far ahead, what looked like cars coming straight for me. For a few seconds I was concerned, but I quickly saw that the sun was simply glancing off the backs of cars, making the light look like headlights heading my way. In reality, the stream of cars was proceeding precisely as it should. I wondered, as I continued driving, how often I have totally misconstrued events in the classroom. When I thought a boy seemed bored with the book we were discussing, was a shy enthusiasm, in fact, shining inside him? When I thought I had been a fairly effective teacher in a class, were the kids, in fact, riding miles away on daydreams?  As I’ve known in my heart for years, and re-learned today, I very often have no truthful idea what’s happening right in front of my eyes. It’s another cause for humility. All I can do is look again, and then again, and hope the truth will somehow slip past my hasty and imperfect judgments.

* * * * *


         I sometimes think of balloons when I consider the kind of teacher I’d like to be. Teaching adolescents is serious business, but still, shouldn’t there be something blithe and bouncy about it, something as light-hearted as balloons?  I often walk around school like I’m bearing an enormous burden of some sort, as if the entire weight of my students’ academic lives is sitting squarely on my shoulders, but in reality (if only I could remember it), that weight is as buoyant as a balloon. All I need is for a group of friendly, free-and-easy students to sprint past me to the playing fields to remind me of how wispy and insubstantial my responsibilities actually are. I’d be a better teacher if, instead of presenting myself to my students as a slumped over carrier of grave duties, I raised myself up and showed some of the grace and frothiness that lucky people should display. Of all the working people in the world, I am among the most fortunate, having only to share my love of language, literature, and life itself with blossoming, rousing teenagers in order to earn a paycheck. What’s weighty about that? What kind of cumbersome burden is that? If the students don’t master the use of gerunds at the age of 14, will that threaten their futures? If they finish my course with just a slender understanding of symbolism in The Tempest, will they slip backwards in the only significant race, the one to satisfaction and self-possession? As a teacher, I hope to be more like a balloon than a battering ram, more light-hearted than heavy-handed. The students don’t need my nagging as much as they need my help in rising above the kinks and snarls of novels and the frustrations of essay writing – rising up and getting freer and freer. 

* * * * *


         My goal, as I move through my fifth decade as a teacher of teenagers, is to gradually become more like a child in the classroom. We adults progressively become very different people from what we were as children, but different doesn’t necessarily mean better. We know more, earn more, own more, and can do more than children, but that doesn’t mean we are happier or more successful than children. I certainly don’t want to regress back to my silly, childish days, but I wouldn’t mind recapturing some of the spontaneous and guileless ways of childhood, for I feel it would make me a better teacher. I wouldn’t even mind being known as a naïve teacher, if by that is meant natural and unaffected. Children are naïve, in part, because they haven’t yet learned the ways of artifice and haughtiness. They’re sincere and bright, not slick and clever like so many of us adults. A little childlike naïveté might make me a more instinctive and unrestrained teacher, with less posing and masquerading and more old-fashioned genuineness. Perhaps, if I regained some of my 6-year-oldness, I might be somewhat less suspicious in the classroom. Instead of wondering what the kids are doing behind my back or what anti-teacher thoughts they’re thinking, I might start noticing the best of their qualities more often than the worst. I might consistently expect goodness in Room 2 rather than always snooping around for duplicity and disruption. It wouldn’t be bad to be like a kid as I stand at the front of the room – uninhibited, without airs, and trusting. I have no hair on my head and only folds and rumples on my face, but in my heart it could be always early spring. I could even whistle, or do a hop and skip now and then.

* * * * *


         In my work as a middle school English teacher, I often find myself looking inward and downward, when I probably should be looking outward and upward. On those days when I’m looking inward, I’m almost obsessively focused on how I am feeling, how I am doing as a teacher, what I should be doing next – and when I’m looking downward, I’m seeing only the comparatively minuscule small, lesson I’m trying to teach. If I were a cartoonist, I would draw myself, on those narrow, introverted days, with my head turned completely down toward my chest, as if I were trying to see inside myself.  The students and the grand, far-reaching world are somewhere in front of me, but I’m seeing only the constricted confines of a tiny self and a single modest lesson plan. Sadly, because I see only a very small picture on those days, I miss another picture that’s actually immeasurable in scope. If I could look a little more outward, I might actually see my full-of-life students in all their inimitability, and if I turned my gaze upward, I could perhaps catch sight of the immense overall landscape of this educational process we’re all engaged in. It would be like climbing a tree to see the unbroken countryside, instead of sitting at the bottom with my head in my arms. This reminds me, actually, of my tree-climbing days as a kid—days when I was never satisfied with a slim, limited view of things. As a 12-year-old, turning inward and downward would have seemed utterly foolish, because, for me, the vast, unrolling prairie of my young life required going outside and getting up high. I was nearly always heading out and climbing skyward, nestled in tree branches or on high hills, seeing the vistas. Unfortunately, there are no trees in my classroom, but there are other ways to turn away from my skimpy self and see what the wide world in Room 2 looks like.

* * * * *


         I sometimes wish I had a pair of special goggles that I could wear during those occasional times when I’m a thoroughly unperceptive teacher. With the magic goggles, I could see what’s been directly in front of my eyes, but which I’ve missed because of a strange kind of sporadic loss of awareness. During those myopic periods of teaching, what I see in front of me in the classroom seems to be nothing more than a group of mildly interesting but essentially similar teenagers, kids who do my assignments with some degree of success and are somewhat obedient and dutiful. If you notice a lack of excitement in that description, it’s due to my periodic partial blindness: I simply don’t see the miracles that are my students. I might even offhandedly say, “Hey, they’re just a bunch of typical kids,” which is exactly why I could use the magic goggles – so I could see that typical is the opposite of what they are. If I put on the goggles, perhaps I would see the group of incomparable creations of the universe sitting before me. Maybe I would notice their uniqueness, their gifts and flairs, their untried and unpolished magnificence. Of course, if I were a truly wise man, I wouldn’t need miraculous goggles, for I would know that no group of people is only “mildly interesting” or “essentially similar”, least of all a group of freshly blossoming adolescents.  I would feel fortunate, indeed privileged, to be in the same classroom with my students, lucky to be considered worthy of being one of their teachers, blessed to be lending a hand in bringing these up-and-coming citizens to the doors of their future. 

* * * * *


         I spend much of my classroom time giving ideas to my students, and I try to be a glad and generous giver. Why not, since the ideas were generously given to me? Why shouldn’t I turn right around and happily bestow on my students the ideas that were freely bestowed on me? I didn’t work for my ideas, or discover them, or unearth them, or spend precious time laboring to construct them, so why should I hoard them as though they are mine? The ideas I give to my students are no more mine than the wind and sky. They came to me casually the way days come along, and I, in turn, pass them along to my students. I find it odd that I sometimes fall under the spell of believing that I personally make, and therefore own, ideas – as though there’s a small idea-generating factory in my head that I personally supervise.  When I fall into this dazed mindset, it’s usually not long before I come to my senses and remember that all the ideas I call mine actually first came to me as visitors.  In their endless history, these rootless, roving ideas (which is what all ideas are) had previously visited, in one set of clothes or another, zillions of other thinkers, and now they came to me – out of nowhere, you might say.  If I welcome the ideas and invite them to stay while (and often I don’t), they mix and socialize with other visiting ideas inside me, and thus are transformed somewhat before they pass along to other people (perhaps students) with whom I cone in contact. It’s an everlasting procession of mental visitors – ideas of all shapes and sizes strolling through the world and rapping on the doors of our lives. I just happen to be lucky enough to bestow, in my turn, a few of them on some ready and receptive teenagers each day.


* * * * *


         After four decades in the classroom, teaching English has become more and more like a fairly free-wheeling game to me. Of course, as with any game, there’s considerable uncertainty involved day by day. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose; sometimes there’s steadiness and peace, sometimes there’s disarray and struggle. On any day, my lessons could come together into enlightenment or fall apart into failure. Uncertainty is at the center of all satisfying games, and in the midst of a given English class, uncertainty reigns. I never know: Are the students learning anything? Will this lesson crack into bits and pieces in the next few minutes? Will the sleepy kids sigh with relief when the period ends?  Or …  will this become one of my finest teaching moments? Will the principal pass by and praise the learning that’s radiating from my room? Truly, when I’m teaching, I sometimes feel like I did when I played high school football, flinging my self around the field in happy abandon. I don’t do any flinging in Room 2, but there’s a certain amount of abandon and inhibition in my teaching, just as there was in my football days. If you’re going to play a game – football or teaching – you have to accept, and love, the rowdy uncertainty of it all. 

* * * * *


         Now that baseball season is approaching, I’ve been wondering where “home” is in English class. In baseball, home is the place the players try to get to, the ultimate destination, the goal that means a team is closer to winning the game. It’s interesting that home is also the place where a batter starts from, so coming home means he has been successful mainly because he is back where he began. In a sense, he’s made absolutely no progress, and because of that, he has accomplished precisely what he desired. As I’ve been thinking about it, it’s occurred to me that, in English class, the students sometimes succeed in a similar way – by, you might say, making no progress and ending exactly where they began.  In writing, as they approach the final words, they try to find their way back to the beginning of the piece in order to remind the reader of the overall point.  At the very end of the writing, they come home again to the main idea, which is exactly where they started. (Perhaps they hear in their minds their teacher cheering as they make it home.) In daily lessons, too, I try to lead the students home again at the end of class, bringing them back to where we started, rounding the lesson into a finished circle. In May and June, the yearly curriculum also, I hope, leads the kids home as we review the year, going back to topics we started in the fall and winter. We journey far each year in our exploration of English topics, but it’s important that we come back home at the end, just to take a breath and admire the distance we traveled. Of course, in one sense, we do make progress through the year, the students and I, but perhaps it’s the kind of progress the hero makes in the fairy tale about the man who journeys far and wide in search of a treasure, only to return home and find it in his own backyard. We discover new talents and insights as the months pass, but maybe, in an odd sort of way, the talents and insights have been with us all along, and we uncover them in English class by simply coming home, again and again, to our best selves.

* * * * *


“All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood.”
n  Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man”

I’ve been teaching for many years, but sometimes, even now, I get the peculiar feeling that I understand almost nothing about my work – which is why I was especially struck this morning by this quote from Pope. Even after four decades in the classroom, in spite of everything I’ve supposedly learned about my profession, I often feel that teaching is an “Art unknown” to me. It seems, at times, so chancy and haphazard, as if there’s no direction to it, or at least none that I can see. Despite all my carefully designed lesson plans, I occasionally feel like I’m in the dark with a thoroughly insignificant flashlight, just hoping I might occasionally search out a truth about teaching.  Strangely, though, this doesn’t discourage me. In fact, it’s actually exciting to realize, more and more clearly, that the art and science of teaching is far too immense and obscure for any one person to fully understand. I’m gradually taking in the fact that that this enterprise I’ve been involved in all these years is as vast and incomprehensible as the Grand Canyon, and who wouldn’t be happy to spend 40+ years surrounded by such splendor? Places like the Grand Canyon are majestic because of their mystery, and since nothing in my experience is more mysterious than the teaching of teenagers, there must be majesty in the work I’m lucky to be doing. Going back to Pope, if there seems to be discord in my teaching now and then, maybe that’s only because I can’t make out the hidden harmony that’s behind it all. If there appears to be disarray and confusion, perhaps it’s because I simply can’t see the suitable and steady direction in which my students and I are moving. Were I hiking through the Grand Canyon, I wouldn’t be worried because I couldn’t fully (or even partially) comprehend the mysteries of its grandeur. In a way, my ignorance is my bliss – and so it is in teaching.

* * * * *
I’ve often thought (and written) about the role that surprises play in good teaching and learning, and this morning I started wondering whether my students and I could purposely search for surprises. Could we set out, at the start of each class, to discover as many surprises as possible?  Could it be a sort of magical quest each day: Who can find the most interesting surprise in this poem or story? If we did this, maybe we would find ourselves using words related to “surprise”. We might say that a sentence in a story came as a shock to us, or that the final paragraph in an essay was a total bombshell. Someone might say he was staggered to discover a totally new meaning in a line of poetry, and a girl might tell us she is thoroughly flabbergasted by the current writing assignment. Maybe a chapter in a novel will take us by surprise or catch us off guard or catch us red-handed. Who knows, we might spend an entire class period in utter bewilderment as we try to find our way through some Emily Dickinson poems.  We might have rude awakenings day after day as we explore The Tempest. Ariel, in the play, says he “flamed amazement” around the ship carrying Prospero’s enemies, and perhaps I need to send my students (and myself) on a search for some of those flames in every English class. We could search our books and writings for surprises that leave us open-mouthed, dumbfounded, stupefied, dazed, taken aback, shaken up, and floored.
* * * * *
         We’re dealing with some serious flooding in southern New England these days – rivers are “rising and surging”, as one resident put it – and this morning, leafing through a dictionary, I happened to come upon the word “resource”, and was surprised to discover that its origin is the old French resourdre, meaning “rise again”, which is in turn based on the Latin surgere, which means “to rise”. This didn’t suggest to me that our current floods are actually a resource for us, but it did set me thinking about one particular resource my students and I have in our work in English class. It may be a more powerful resource than we have imagined, a resource that actually does rise and surge through our lives in transforming ways. I’m referring, of course, to our ability to think, an ability that, in many ways, is stronger and more forceful than springtime floods. My students and I have far more thoughts available to us than we realize – thoughts that, you might say, are constantly rising like rivers.  This resource is available to us instantly and abundantly, flowing through us with an almost reckless lack of restraint. What’s odd is that my students and I sometimes actually don’t see, or believe in, this overflowing mental resource. It’s as if, standing beside the flooded river in my small Rhode Island town and watching the water surge wildly along, we were to calmly say, “Where’s the flood? Where’s the rising, surging river?” The truth is that it’s in our minds, all the time—thoughts ceaselessly flowing like the finest resource, but sometimes, I fear, they flood through my classroom largely unnoticed.

* * * * *
                  There are many arts I should be teaching my students – the art of writing paragraphs, the art of punctuating properly, the art of reading with awareness – but I sometimes forget to teach the art of lingering. In our madcap, breakneck world, lingering has long ago become a lost art, and I need to bring its significance and usefulness to the attention of my students. They need to learn that dawdling can be a highly creative act, and that loitering can lead to learning of the highest order. The beautiful truths available to teenagers (or anyone) don’t reveal themselves to hastiness, but only to long-drawn-out attentiveness.  The kids, I’m afraid, are accustomed to rushing through just about every task, but that simply doesn’t work when you’re exploring a Shakespeare sonnet or writing a weighty and well-designed essay. I must help them learn to linger lovingly over a phrase of Shakespeare’s, and to dawdle among their own sentences in a search for possible fine-tuning and refinement. They must learn to wait quietly in the middle of a poem, reading the words over and over, passing the time until a truth materializes from out of the lines.  I must help them see the delight that can come from dallying in a chapter of a Dickens novel -- doubling back to some favorite sentences, savoring a paragraph for a full fifteen minutes, tarrying on the last page, hoping the chapter will never end. Rushing, I guess, will get us places faster, but faster doesn’t make it in my English class. A book-loving, word-loving tortoise would get a higher grade than any hare. 

* * * * *
         I spent some time basking in the sun this past weekend, and this week in English class I plan to encourage my students to bask in their own writing.  Basking in the spring sunshine (especially after weeks of storms) requires no effort, and in a way, neither does basking in sentences and paragraphs. In the warm, late-afternoon light on Sunday, I simply sat in a chair and allowed the sun to do its munificent work, and tomorrow in class I will ask my students to just stay silent in the center of some of their writing, letting its allure linger around them. We can’t rush the enjoyment of sunshine, and neither can we rush the appreciation of written words. The students need to sprawl a little in the middle of their first drafts, feeling the overall motifs and perhaps sensing new forms and directions their sentences might take. They need to luxuriate in their own writing, perhaps loll in it, as I did in the surprising sunshine. Only then can they feel the full force of what they’ve written, and only then can they find new ways to spruce up their writing, like the April sun somewhat refurbished my life this weekend.

* * * * *


         In The Tempest, lives are magically transformed, and, in my more idealistic moments, I like to think English class can do the same for my students.  As one example, I hope each poem and story we read will contribute to at least a partial overhaul of the students’ ideas and feelings.  I want the reading and study of literature to be like taking a steaming, soapy shower. It may sound naïve, but I’d like them to emerge from each book as bright, brand new, newly-enlightened learners. Who knows – a student may come to class caught in severe depression, but leave with a light around him after studying a poem by Keats. A girl may get her life up and running after reading Great Expectations, and a boy might lift up his days through an attentive exploration of some Jack London stories. I recall countless times when a poem or a paragraph enabled me to turn my day in a totally new direction, and I hope, optimistically, that the same can happen for my teenage students.  Lord knows my students are not wretched kids who need a complete makeover, but all of us enjoy renovating and reshaping our lives now and then, and literature is one of the greatest transforming agents of all. You can enter a Shakespeare play as a cantankerous quitter, and emerge from Act 5 as a bright and breezy idealist. Just the other day, I thought I noticed a satisfied smile on a girl’s face after reading some poems by William Stafford – this from a girl who usually seems to live under sinister clouds.  She was transformed, if only for a few moments, not by expensive possessions or a pill, but by a poet she came across in English class.

* * * * *


         As their English teacher, I try to encourage my students to take good care of their minds. I’m sure countless people have advised them to take care of their bodies, but what about protection and provision for their minds? A mind can fall into shabbiness and disorder as easily as a body, and a kind of cancer can grow among thoughts just as surely as among tissues and organs. Like all of us, students should be devoted to the health and wellbeing of their minds, and I try to help them in that endeavor.  For instance, I force them to rigorously exercise their mind, just as their athletic coaches put them through their physical paces on the field and court.  I push them through seemingly inscrutable poems and tangled stories, making them, now and then, think themselves into exhaustion. I hope they’re gasping for their mental breath when a class period ends.  I also try to feed their minds only the healthiest foods during English class. We read the finest literature I can find – books that will bring stimulation and nourishment to their minds.  No fast-food poems, no take-out stories, no drive-through novels – only the kind of illuminated literature that will let a shaft of healthful light into their young minds. Of course, I also have to help them learn to bar their mental doors to thoughts that can be unwholesome during English class. Like all of us, stray ideas steadily pass through their minds, and during an exhausting class inspection of a Faulkner short story, some of my students are surely tempted to welcome a roving daydream or two, whatever it might bring, as long as it’s something besides Faulkner. My job is to encourage them to be sentries at the doors of their minds, to stand guard at the entrances, permitting only thoughts fitting for the topic. I want them to be free thinkers but also stern coaches and trainers of their brains. I want them to leave each English class feeling like their minds are more hale and hearty than ever.

* * * * *

   I often feel like playing a recording of reveille at the start of English class, just to rouse the students -- and me -- into some kind of wakefulness. I include myself in that statement because I am often just as unconscious as the kids often are – just as robotic, just as programmed, just as far away in my own preoccupied absentmindedness.  I always plan a careful lesson for each class, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be lost in a professional daze of sorts. My thoughts run like a teacher-machine throughout the school day, and I often need to be awakened to the fact that out-of-the-ordinary, mystifying, and relatively untamed teenage human beings are sitting in front of me, and that brilliant pieces of literature are under investigation. I also have to constantly bestir my students and myself to be sure we are staying observant for the messages and signals sent up from stories and poems. Like a sergeant rousing his sleepy soldiers on the front lines, I prowl among the students for the full 48 minutes, keeping them, and me, watchful for flares of new thoughts and bursts of surprising ideas. I verbally poke and prod all of us: stay awake, something’s coming, be ready. 

* * * * *

         Over the years, I have grown ever more pleased to call myself a play-acting teacher.  That’s sounds a bit shocking, perhaps, but it’s the plain truth about me. In the classroom, I’m simply an actor. I wear one mask after another, and I’m glad that I’ve gradually come to accept that fact. What I’ve slowly been able to realize is that we all wear masks all the time. The real “us” is somewhere far beneath (or above) all the many roles we play, including husband, friend, worker, mother, or teacher. Each day we frequently change masks, depending on what part we are playing at the time, while the power behind the mask quietly abides in the background. Years ago I would have fervently denied this, thinking of it as pure deceit, but nowadays I accept this ceaseless role-playing as the way things really are – and I’m happy they are. It’s been fun to finally understand that teaching should be regarded more as a pastime than a skirmish, more as a fascinating stage play than a life-or-death endeavor. I take my teaching seriously, but I also take it lightly and humorously. I realize that, in the big picture, what life is all about is not commas and symbolism and Ernest Hemingway short stories, but something far deeper than that, something hidden beneath the mask and costume called “student” and “teacher”. I do my best to play my role as a teacher (just as I do with my many other roles), but I know that the real force behind the role is way bigger and more interesting than a 68-year-old dramatic character called “Mr. Salsich”. The actor playing that character, and all of my countless characters, is life itself. I wear the masks; life (or maybe Life) does the work – or perhaps I should say the playing.          

* * * * *

         When things in my English classes seem fairly monotonous, it helps me to recall that, actually, monotony is not possible – not in my classroom, and not anywhere else. Monotony involves a lack of variety, but the truth is that all of life, all of reality, is filled with the rowdiest kind of variety. Every present moment is utterly unmarked and up-to-the-minute, as different from every other moment as one person is from another. Nothing old, nothing the same, ever happens; only the new-fangled and fresh come into existence each instant. My classroom, filled with its tired-looking teens, is actually
a hot-bed of constant transformation – newness being re-assembled every second. The students’ zillion cells are relentlessly re-shaping themselves – changing, adjusting, modifying, dying, being born. Jimmy in the second row is a brand-new Jimmy every second – new thoughts, new feelings, millions of new cells. A river changes every moment, but no faster than the life in my classroom. Even when the kids seem on the threshold of sleep, when all appears to be tedium and tiredness -- even then, their bodies, the air around them, the world outside, the far-flung stars, are in a state of splendid transformation. It can’t be stopped. No matter how sleepy my classroom seems, it’s actually an extravaganza of makeovers and renovations. I should be in a state of continuous astonishment just to be in the presence of such ceaseless stir and bustle.

* * * * *


“The noble Heart, that harbours vertuous Thought,
And is with child of glorious great Intent,
Can ne'er rest, until it forth have brought
Th' eternal Brood of Glory excellent.”
         -- Edmund Spenser, “The Faerie Queene”, Book 1, Canto V

         It might seem far-fetched, even preposterous, to compare my capricious 9th grade English scholars to a mythical knight who’s setting out to achieve a “Glory excellent”, but the comparison makes an odd kind of sense to me. I think my students are, in fact, “noble hearts”, simply because I see them every day acting in bold and stalwart ways. They sit up straight in an often tiresome class, plod patiently through my exhausting daily assignments, write taxing essays week after week, and often mask their stress and troubles with a smile for their teacher.  They’re not seeking “Glory excellent”, but simply a civilized grade in English, and they’re doing an honorable job of it. Despite their occasional cycles of silliness and lassitude, I persist in believing that the students have a “glorious great intent” in their hearts – that, in their own particular ways, they all want to achieve goals they can honestly call great. In one way or another, they are all knights searching for their own private kind of glory. No doubt many of the kids’ particular glories have little do with my English class, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t recognize and be glad about their aspirations. They are each devoted to something great, and that’s what’s important, whether it’s becoming a champion skateboarder, a trustworthy friend, a daring soccer scorer, or, conceivably, an A+ writer of English essays. They may not all be knights of Mr. Salsich’s roundtable, but they are all faithful knights in their own singular way – and admirable ones, at that.

* * * * *

         I’m hoping to continue to develop both boldness and meekness in my teaching, and I hope my students do the same in their schoolwork. I want to be ever more fearless but still humble – always ready to risk failure by following an unproven path in a lesson, but also ready to recognize that my meager efforts are no more special than a puff of air in the immeasurable weather system of the earth.  Likewise, my students should be audacious but unassuming in their approach to English class.  They need to take the necessary gambles as they get fresh sentences together for an essay, but they must also keep in mind how modest their understanding is in the face of the far reaches of wisdom in this world.  In our small countryside classroom, my students and I need to be stalwart but self-effacing explorers – looking for glory but also for the grandness of the world of which we’re an infinitesimal part.  It’s not easy to be both bold and meek. It’s not a simple thing, for instance, to send students off on a stressful assignment and still stay humble enough to realize that you really have no sure idea whether the assignment will be successful or second-rate.  Likewise, it takes some effort on a student’s part to stand firm in an opinion about a poem and yet be completely open to other interpretations. I often think of mountains in this regard. A mountain is a bold presence as it stands sturdily among the clouds, but you might say it’s also modest enough to submit to the machinations of rain, snow, wind, and countless other powerful influences.  It knows its brave but unprivileged place in the universe, and so should my students and me.

* * * * *

         Yesterday, while I was out for a walk, a car passed by with music blaring at a preposterously high volume, and I was suddenly inspired: maybe I should blast poetry from my car. Think of it: a wan and well-aged English teacher driving around town with Wordsworth exploding from the windows. I could cruise the streets with the sounds of some fine British actor’s rendition of “Lines Written in Early Spring” soaring out of the car at the highest possible decibel level. Late on a Saturday night, I could drive among the bars and bistros and amuse the revelers with Richard Burton shouting out “Daffodils” so it reverberates and booms for blocks around.  I assume that a lot of young male drivers blast their music out to the streets in the hopes of getting wandering young women to glance their way, and perhaps I could have some kind of similar luck. Being a long-ago divorced guy in my weathered years, maybe I could convince some worn but fine-looking woman to look my way if she hears lines from Paradise Lost pouring out of my car.  Maybe a gorgeous lady in her late 60’s might swing a wave my way when she hears Hopkins’ words soar up from my windows with both tumult and charm: “Nothing is so beautiful as spring – when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush”. Alas, surely I’m deceiving myself with these foolish daydreams, but at least I’m fairly certain I could impress (well, maybe) my young students if, when I pulled up to school on a Friday night to chaperone a dance, the voice of Will Smith was booming a Langston Hughes be-bop poem from my CD player.  Maybe the students would gather around my car and say things like, “Hey Mr. S, that’s a cool poem. Can you turn up the volume?” Or maybe (more like it), they’d just smile politely at their odd and antiquated English teacher and turn back to the sounds of Slipknot thundering out from the gym.

* * * * *

         I was watching a soccer match on television yesterday, and the constant and stalwart singing by the spectators (a European tradition) started me wondering if music and English class would be as fitting a match up as music and English soccer, or football, as they know it. Most of my students worship music like some kind of supernatural force, so perhaps it would be smart of me to make use of that force in the classroom. Like the singing in soccer stadiums, the students’ beloved songs could form part of the surroundings of our efforts and struggles in class. Perhaps the kids could connect the underlying harmonies and lyrics of the music to whatever it is we’re attempting to do in class, or possibly the spirit of the songs would simply lift their hearts a bit during an especially tedious class. It makes me think of the background music spring birds make as I sit in the park with a book. Does their music interfere with my reading, or make my thoughts less focused and fervent? On the contrary, it might be that the birdsongs bring just enough beauty to my ears to rouse me more fully to the significance of the sentences I’m reading. What if I played a mix of songs on Pandora.com during class, at a very soft volume, sort of like the songs of birds in spring trees?  Each day, a different student could choose a band or artist with which to make the mix (with the proviso that the music must be of a smooth and levelheaded kind), and we could then carry on our literary pursuits while the songs make a laid-back milieu for us. Occasionally, I could turn up the volume for a few seconds, just to have a listen, and we could try to connect the words we hear to whatever we’ve been discussing.  For instance, while I’ve been writing this, I’ve been listening, on very low volume, to a Pandora mix of Norah Jones-type songs, and I just turned up the volume to these words by Jones herself: “I’m looking for the break of day”. In class, I could ask, “How do those words relate to writing a blog post?”  -- and some enlightened young scholar might answer, “Easy. Each and every sentence, you hope, is like the break of day for the reader.”  Who knows? The singing in stadiums may inspire soccer players, and perhaps my students might mentally rise and shine if Alicia Keys or Owl City is singing in the background in Room 2.


         This morning, a lovely one, I started wishing I could teach the way blossom-filled branches behave. There’s a tree outside my classroom that’s laden with purple blossoms these days, and I admire the way it sways with even the softest breezes. The tree doesn’t appear to exert any effort; it simply lets the spring winds shift and shake its blossoms.  It seems to feel the slightest influence of even the mildest breezes – seems to slightly transform itself with every passing gust. I wonder if I could teach that way. I wonder if I could I put aside some of my useless fussing and distressing, and just focus on being a sturdy, sensitive teacher for my students. They bring their breezy ideas and words to class, and, like the blossoming tree outside, perhaps I could simply let the ideas and words stir me in their various ways.  What’s interesting is that the tree’s limbs rustle with even the gentlest puff of wind, and maybe I could be that kind of teacher – a truly responsive one, a teacher whose thoughts are genuinely influenced by the students’ thoughts that waft and float around him in class. 

* * * * *

         There are days – like today – when I feel like a wealthy man as I move among my teenage students. Leading the class through a lesson, I feel like I’m wearing a thousand-dollar suit and swinging a priceless watch on a chain. I feel richer than a king, and bighearted enough to give a good deal of my wealth away. I picture myself tossing out coins with each smile and word. Where does this feeling come from? Simply put, I know that I have unlimited resources at my disposal, primarily in the form of an infinite supply of good ideas. In the bank of my mind, my account of thoughts is bottomless. It can never be overdrawn. I don’t have much real money, and I rent a modest apartment and drive a low-cost car, but in my classroom, I have a limitless amount of ideas to “spend”. Not all of my ideas are dazzling or clever or even interesting, but they’re all potentially helpful and even transformative – all umpteen zillion of them. I spend my ideas freely and cheerily during each class – dealing them out to the kids like cold cash. Of course, they aren’t actually “my” ideas. I don’t “make” them like the mint makes dollars. As far as I can tell, ideas just arrive at my life, by the dozens and thousands -- constantly, surprisingly and sometimes enchantingly – and from me they flow out into words for my students. A rich river of ideas is available for me (and for all of us, if we only knew it), and I ramble around my classroom like an openhanded millionaire.

* * * * *

         I wonder if I might learn something about teaching by studying the procedures of sailors on a ship. Some Navy friends told me recently that, when they are carrying out their various nautical responsibilities, they don’t use personal names to address each other, but rather the specific duties of each person. As one woman told me, it’s not who you are that’s important, but what you do.  Hence, someone named Jim Smith might be referred to as HM2 (his job), as in, “Hey, HM2, can you give me a hand?” My friends explained that this serves to downplay the independence and separateness of each person, and instead reminds the sailors that togetherness is more important than individuality, that the team is more crucial than any single player. Of course, my English classes are not particularly analogous to military units, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the individuality of my students is not of critical importance, but still, there’s something to be learned from the team approach used by the Navy. The senior-citizen person named “Hamilton Salsich” – an individual with innumerable arbitrary likes and dislikes and a 68-year history of ups and downs and sorrows and triumphs – is not nearly as important in Room 2 as “the teacher of literature and writing”. That’s my job – “what I do” – and all that’s important, really, is that the job gets done, day after day, with as much excellence as possible. Never mind who my parents were or what happened at home last night or what personal burdens I may be carrying; what counts is the job  -- teaching English to the teenagers who come to my classroom each day.  Does this mean that I should be a frosty and aloof kind of teacher? On the contrary, leaving my personal life at the door might actually mean that I can to do my important job with a greater sense of allegiance, loyalty, and even exuberance.  After all, teaching is, above all, about being dedicated to others – the students – and that kind of devotion should lead to an intense passion for the work. When there’s a higher goal than mere individual, personal pleasure – as there is in the military and should be in teaching – there exists the prospect of seriously ardent and grand endeavors.

* * * * *

         In between classes this morning, I took a close look at some crimson blossoms on a handsome tree near my room, and it reminded me, instantly, of some of the times when I’ve paused in reading and taken a close look at the text. Of course, more often than not I don’t pause, don’t take a close look, don’t carefully examine either what I’m reading or the blossoms on a tree. Like many of us, I’m often in a somewhat scatter-brained mode when I’m reading or passing picturesque trees, so I seldom take time to look closely. Words in books usually hurry into and out of my mind as fast as the pages turn, and I’m afraid that pretty trees come and go in my life merely like blurs or shadows.  However, this morning, I bent close to a few blossoms and actually saw them. I studied them for a few seconds, and sure enough, the fullness of their beauty became clear. It was just a fleeting moment of study, but it was enough to show me a small kind of magnificence just outside my classroom. It reassured me, in an odd kind of way, that I’m doing the right thing by requiring my students to read The Tempest little by little and with great care. We regularly stop and study lines and words, similar to the way I stopped beside the spring tree this morning.  You might say we stroll through Shakespeare instead of dashing. We use the magnifying glasses of our minds to inspect the small treasures concealed in his words – the blossoms of language that hasty readers surely miss. 

* * * * *
         This morning a colleague was saying, with dismay, that she can teach the same lesson to consecutive, fairly similar classes, and have one lesson soar and the other stumble and fall to pieces, to which another colleague added, “And there seems to be no discernible reason for the difference.” It is, indeed, a mystery, how the same plans, words, even gestures of a teacher can stir up eagerness in one class and only bewilderment in another. It makes no apparent sense. I’m the same teacher at 10:30 and 11:20, and the students are of more or less comparable abilities, and yet wisdom blossoms in one class but only lassitude in the other. It’s even more mystifying than the weather. After all, a good meteorologist can explain even the most screwball weather patterns, but who can make clear why the same lesson triumphs in 9A and quietly dies in 9B? I’m assuming, of course, that the two classes are of similar abilities and behavior patterns. We all know how one group of kids can seem eminently teachable while another group appears consistently inaccessible, but what if the classes are fairly similar – and still we see the same lesson suceed in one class and fail in another?  I challenge anyone to find a scientist of any kind who can explain this phenomenon (a regular one for most teachers) with passable accuracy. It speaks of the essential mystery involved in teaching other human beings. The riddles of the weather are second-rate compared to the ambiguities and obscurities that arise when a teacher and students come together.

* * * * *
         When a friend was telling me recently about hydrostatic balance – the state of equilibrium in the atmosphere when the forces of gravity and air pressure are balanced -- I couldn’t help but think about the atmosphere and forces in my classroom. My friend explained that in our atmosphere we are constantly under intense pressure, from both gravity and the air, but because the pressures are usually well balanced against each other, we generally live our lives fairly unaware of them. There’re just there, always pushing and pulling us in different directions with considerable force. As I listened to my friend, I realized that I hope the academic atmosphere in my classroom produces similarly balanced pressures. There’s nothing wrong with having students labor under powerful pressures – the pressure to complete demanding assignments, the pressure to unravel the truths in elaborate literary works, the pressure of their own desire to achieve, and, yes, the pressure their sometimes insistent parents place upon them. In addition (and this relates to the counter-balancing pressures in our physical atmosphere), there’s no doubt that my teenage students also work beneath reverse pressures – the pressure to be liked by friends, the pressure to sometimes put one’s head in the clouds, and the pressure, sometimes, to just be purposely foolish and irresponsible. When all these various and contradictory pressures are perfectly balanced in my classroom, a fine kind of peaceful intensity can come into being -- passion and concentration nicely balanced by lightheartedness and looseness.  In this ambiance, the kids work energetically but also smile and laugh energetically. They grit their teeth to understand a sentence in Joyce, but they also lift their eyes to take pleasure in the sight of birds at the feeder outside the classroom. This is hydrostatic balance, Room 2 style.

* * * * *
“…a sort of mystery which he was rather proud to think lay outside the sphere of light which enclosed his own understanding.”
         -- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, Ch. 46

         I love this quote, because it rather exactly describes a feeling I get nearly every day in the classroom. Teaching teenagers, a vocation I have been lucky enough to call mine for over 40 years, has gradually become an ever more profound mystery to me. Instead of slowly building an understanding of how to perform this delicate and essential work, the passing years seemed to have slowly stripped away the pretense that I actually know what I’m doing.  Little by little, I have been humbled. I now know there’s probably no greater mystery than the art of teaching young people, and at present, at the age of 68, I humbly knock on the door of this mystery before every class.  I don’t mean that I’ consider myself a second-rate teacher. For sure, I have learned countless techniques, tools, methods, systems, and procedures, and these do appear to have moved my hundreds (thousands?) of students fairly smoothly along the track of formal English education – but none of that really touches the mysteries involved in teaching kids. For the most part, formal school curriculums run only across the surface of students’ lives, while their true verve and vivacity goes on blossoming and exploding far beneath. I’ve been playing a fairly good game of English teaching over the years, but all the while the mysteries involved in educating human beings have grown gradually larger and foggier.  Actually, though, in a strange sort of way, I feel proud that I’m involved in such a mystifying profession – proud that a vast body of knowledge still lies “outside the sphere of light which encloses [my] own understanding”.  It makes me feel honored to know that I’m at the center, each day in Room 2, of an immeasurable enigma, a colossal riddle – honored, I guess, that I’ve been allowed to be part of it day after day, year after year.  

* * * * *
“…a pretty articulateness of speech that seemed to make daylight in her hearer’s understanding.”
-- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         As a teacher, I hope I can occasionally do what Eliot’s Mrs. Meyrick could do. I picture her children and friends listening to her words, when suddenly something like a sun rises inside their minds and previously concealed truths become clear. Darkness and disorder becomes brightness and clearness when they listen to her.  Her words seem to carry lights inside them that switch on when someone listens. This would be a first-rate trick for a teacher to perform, and perhaps it happens more often than I realize. Perhaps a few small sunrises happen in some of my classes, thanks to something I say. It could be that, as the students listen to me, thoughts occasionally spring up in their minds like stars above.  Maybe, every now and then, I’m able to dispel a bit of my students’ mental darkness just by speaking sincerely and straightforwardly, sharing my thoughts about a sonnet or a story. Of course, it’s no doubt true that some of my students spend much of their time in English class sojourning in daydream land, but perhaps a few others are thrown under a clear inner light by a classmate’s comment or a passing observation from Mr. Salsich. I’m sure on many occasions there’s ample darkness and fog in the minds of my students during class, but hopefully there are also some occasional rays of sunshine inside their minds. Hopefully, now and then, something old Mr. Salsich says makes a bright day in the inner life of a confused kid or two.         

* * * * *


“… his negative mind was as diffusive as fog, clinging to all objects, and spoiling all contact.”
         - George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         I hope it doesn’t happen often, but there are definitely days when I am probably little more than a fog machine in my classroom. These are days when, for murky reasons, I bring a “negative mind” to class, much like Grandcourt in Eliot’s novel carries his clouds of unconstructive and pessimistic thoughts wherever he goes. I’m sure I’m usually unaware of the force of my occasionally unenthusiastic and depressing thoughts, and so they spread their fog through the classroom room unobtrusively, while I go unsuspectingly on with my lesson. On those gloomy days of mine, I may see myself as playing my usual role as a well-prepared teacher, but the students probably see fog flowing out from my overcast face – the fog of down-in-the-dumps moodiness. It’s always astounding to me to realize how powerful a teacher’s presence is to students – how easy it is for his peacefulness or discontent to surround and infuse the students. Whatever a teacher is feeling flows out to the students, sometimes like agreeable and uplifting light, but sometimes, unfortunately, like stifling fog. There’s more than enough light in my life to carry some to the classroom each day; I just need to leave the fog machine at home.

* * * * *

         I’ve occasionally written about the fact that teaching English often reminds me, oddly enough, of walking in a labyrinth. I purposely didn’t use the word “maze”, because long ago a friend explained to me that a labyrinth and a maze are very different things. A maze, he said, has paths that lead nowhere and can cause utter bewilderment, whereas a labyrinth always leads, eventually, to the center.  In a labyrinth, you actually can’t get lost; with patience and perseverance, you always reach the goal, one way or another. I often think of this analogy when the students are studying a literary work – a poem, for instance.  Sometimes they become disheartened by the idea that the poem is simply too puzzling, too obscure, but I try to encourage them to just keep “walking” through the poem the way they would walk in a labyrinth, trusting that all paths lead to the center.  In a labyrinth, they wouldn’t walk in an anxious and dispirited way, because they know they will eventually reach the heart of it, somehow or other, and, likewise, a composed and steadfast reader will sooner or later reach the heart of any poem. In a labyrinth, the secret is to simply keep walking and watching, and the secret of understanding a literary work is to simply keep reading and thinking. With a poem, the students may have to read some lines over and over, walking this way and that with the thoughts in the words, turning left and right as the sense of the lines leads them on. Similar to a labyrinth, the students may very nearly reach the heart of the poem, and then slowly find themselves back at the start, back on the outside of the lines, looking in at the web of words and wondering what it’s all about. However, even then, I remind them to simply start walking good-naturedly through the poem once again, taking pleasure in the power of the words and waiting unwearyingly for the lines to lead them him to the heart of it all. For an enduring reader, it always, in due course, happens. 

* * * * *
         An old hymn speaks of “patience flowing from a fountain”, and I often wish I had a few of those fountains in my classroom. No quality is more important in teaching teenagers than patience, but it sometimes seems like my patience dribbles from a dried out creek bed instead of pouring from a fountain.  I seem to run out of patience as repeatedly as rivers run out of water in the parched places of the earth. I sometimes feel like I have a far too shallow supply of this calming classroom medicine that has made miracles for me on those occasions when I’ve put it to use. When lessons have looked like they might explode in my face, I’ve sometimes been able to diminish the tightness and pressure of things with a balanced flow of patience, just quietly letting the lesson work itself out in its best way. When the temptation has come to hurry the students through an activity, a stream of patience has occasionally softened my edginess and enabled me to be a quiet coach for the kids instead of an uptight dictator. Strangely enough, I often think that, if I could ever understand it correctly, I would see that patience is actually a bottomless, shoreless sea to which I always have access. It’s always there, inside me, waiting to smooth out a rough situation or dampen the dried out areas of a typical day of classes. I don’t seem to have enough patience because I don’t understand what it is – not a material substance that can be measured and lost, but a substance of the heart that has no bounds. It’s an unlimited lake I’m lucky to always have access to, no matter how badly lessons bomb or goals get lost in disorder.

* * * * *

         Watching a tree’s limbs sway in a breeze this morning made me think of an important quality I’ve tried to develop as a teacher. Breezes of another kind – breezes born of teenage thoughts and feelings – are always blowing here and there in my classroom, and I need to be bendable enough to sway with them. The stiff, obstinate tree limbs are the ones that sometimes snap in good winds, and something similar holds true for teachers. My students bring their serendipitous, blustery minds to class each day, and I must be loose enough to deal with whatever mental weather develops during class. It heartens me to look at several enormous old trees near my house, because they remind me, as their elderly limbs effortlessly lift and fall in various winds, that certain kinds of suppleness can perhaps increase as the years pass. I’ve been teaching for four decades, and, in these senior years, my body doesn’t bend with the ease of the old days, but my mind and heart, surprisingly, seem looser than ever. The old beech tree down the street sways its branches with grace and style, and I’m finding, as the years pass, that my thoughts and feelings sway better than ever in the classroom. Whatever winds the kids let loose in the room, my mind seems to know what to do – not stiffen and grow stubborn, but simply lean and swing, lean and swing. 

* * * * *

         Yesterday, when my granddaughter and I were blowing soap bubbles on her 3rd birthday, I somehow felt like I was back in my classroom. As we watched the bubbles drift off in the spring air and then pop or simply disappear, I thought about the hundreds of thoughts I share with my students each day, thoughts that are lucky to last as long as the bubbles we were blowing.  My phrases and sentences sail out among the kids like our bubbles floated among the flowers, and most of my words, I’m sure, silently vanish from the students’ minds as fast as the bubbles disappeared. In fact, all my carefully designed lessons are probably no more abiding than the ephemeral bubbles Ava and I were cheerfully sending forth. Some of my English lessons no doubt harmlessly dissolve and vanish within minutes, just as moments and days do. Classes and school days pass away like bubbles in a stream, and so do Mr. Salsich’s precious lessons. To me, though, this is not cause for gloom.  After all, I’m mildly confident that some of my words and lessons are occasionally as interesting, even perhaps as beautiful, as the bubbles Ava and I sent sailing across the lawn yesterday. They don’t last, but then nothing beautiful does, simply because beauty always makes room for new beauty. As our bubbles disappeared, my granddaughter and I took closer notice of the multicolored blossoms they had been among, and when my words and lessons have vanished, perhaps it’s sometimes true that the students’ wisdom has, in a secret way, ever so slightly widened and sharpened.

* * * * *

         Early this morning, as I took my daily exercise on the hilly streets near my house, I heard countless sounds of sunrise, and none of them needed my help.  The universe of my neighborhood was stirring and rising into life without Mr. Salsich’s assistance.  The English teacher who sometimes sees himself as the center of his classroom cosmos was completely superfluous this morning. The new day was effortlessly establishing itself without my support or advice. It was an instructive half-hour for me. As I climbed the hills, I heard the whistles of birds and the hum of early cars, the buzz of morning insects and the rustle of spring blossoms, and it came to me, as though a lamp had softly switched on in my mind, that countless things happen, moment by moment, without my help or approval. Even my eyes were working with no help from the officious English teacher – my eyes that make miracles every single second, welcoming the world into my life whether I want them to or not. Also, my ears were receiving the morning sounds with wholeheartedness and ease, not because I made it possible for them to do it, but because that’s what they naturally do. The point was as clear as the daybreak song of a robin: the universe doesn’t need my consent for anything. As I continued climbing and thinking, I realized that this applied even to my teaching -- that my students can learn beautifully without any special approval or help from me. Certainly, as a teacher, I lend my daily support and assistance, but like the bird songs encircling the streets this morning, learning of some sort will carry on no matter what flashy plans I make for class.  Kids learn because their hearts and minds are miraculous learning machines, not because some wizened English teacher dreams up bizarre lessons. It’s amazing to me how often I fall into the fantasy of thinking that I am an utterly essential part of my students’ schooling. I was surely not a necessary part of the sounds at sunrise this morning, nor am I indispensable in my students’ attempts to make some wholesome academic noise in their school careers. 

* * * * *
         Feeling frustrated lately by a sense of disorder and obscurity in some of my lessons and classes, I’ve been remembering something I was told on a bus to New York City many years ago. I sat next to an elderly fellow who was traveling to see his six grandchildren in the city, and, when I complained about some turmoil in my life, he smiled gently and said, “Just see what is. Just see what is and go from there.”  He turned back to his magazine and we spoke no more, but his words have stayed with me. In a weird way, those three small words – see what is – seem to state an essential truth about life, and about teaching. It sounds overly simple to say it, but what I need to do in my classroom is just see what’s right in front of my eyes, moment by moment. I don’t need to see goals and objectives and long-range plans and detailed curricula as much as I need to see the distinct and singular students sitting in front of me at any particular moment. Instead of almost exclusively focusing on following the steps of my lesson plan, I need to open my eyes to the miracles called Maddy and Joseph and Asia. It seems increasingly clear to me that I have spent a ludicrous amount of classroom time seeing what isn’t instead of what is. Tomorrow’s class isn’t, and neither is next week’s nor yesterday’s. Even the next step in the lesson isn’t. Only this moment – this strange, unsullied, spanking-new moment with Ryan in his red shirt right in front of me and Carrie beside the windows and Cassy saying what she thinks the story means – only this moment really is. Reducing frustration might be as simple as rediscovering my eyesight, my mislaid capacity for seeing what is, whether it’s Jeb searching for words to express his thoughts, or Amy all by herself by the bookshelves, or Billy bending under his pack of troubles as he sits beside me, or a granddad in a gray sweatshirt going to town on the train.

* * * * *


         Today I wonder if I might, in fact, see something in my classroom that’s been right in front of my eyes all along. A similar thing happened this morning as I was climbing the hills near my house for my daily exercise. I passed a stone wall which I had passed numerous times before on other walks, but this morning, for some reason, I actually noticed the wall and the individual stones in it. I saw the separate stones with their distinct shapes and sizes, and I even noticed the various shades of gray in the stones. It was a strange daybreak revelation, as thought the stones had magically materialized overnight. It started me thinking about my English classes, those daily 48-minute episodes which I sometimes pass through like a ghost going somewhere in a hurry.  How many small but significant occurrences have I completely missed in my classes because I was focused on my particular prearranged agendas and goals?  How many students, far more fascinating than a stone wall, have I passed over with scarcely a glance as I sped on to the next step in my lesson? I sometimes compare myself to someone sitting at the edge of the Grand Canyon with a blindfold on. My students – and I say this with all seriousness – are way more amazing than the Grand Canyon, and yet I walk into my classroom each morning like it’s just a run-of-the-mill room on a commonplace country road. Today, perhaps I can take off the blindfold and see what’s in front of me – not cliffs and ravines, but astounding teenage human beings, breaking, right before my eyes, into adulthood.

* * * * *
“… such … noble reticence …”
         -- Tennyson, Idylls of the King

         I’m no knight in the classroom, but I wouldn’t mind having some of the “noble reticence” of Tennyson’s stalwart heroes. A reticent person understands the stealthy power of silence, a power I too easily lose touch with when I’m teaching. Instead of occasionally pausing to allow silence to spread its refreshing influence around the room, I’m usually sharing my thoughts in a fairly relentless manner. The kids might feel like they’re being shot at with a rapid-fire thought-gun for the full forty-eight minutes. What’s the point of all this incessant long-windedness? Is teaching all about seeing how many thoughts I can think up and throw out to my students like so many stones? What happened to simply shutting up and letting the wisdom in the room simmer for a few seconds? What happened to trusting the thoughts of the students to do some tossing around of their own? I sometimes picture a shade tree in the corner of my classroom, a fine place for sitting and being silent. When I see that tree in my mind, I’m reminded to make my own silence a part of the daily lesson. I take my place under the make-believe branches and bring my prattling to a stop for a few moments, the reticent teacher staying still so understanding can swell and flourish.

* * * * *
         I wish I could notice things in my classes the way I noticed the scraping and scratching sounds my sneakers made on the sidewalk early this morning as I took my daily exercise. Because I tried to be especially focused, I seemed to hear even the smallest sounds – the closing of a door down the street, the flapping of a flag around a corner, even the scuffing noise of my shoes. There were small stones on the sidewalk here and there, and my sneakers made slightly different sounds on every cluster of stones. As I listened to my footsteps, I felt like a scientist studying the characteristics of sound variations. It made me wonder if I need to be more of a scientist in my English classes – more of an acute observer of the occurrences that come to pass when the students and I come together. I could set a challenge for myself before each class: How many new and remarkable things can I notice? I set out this morning to be a sharp and observant walker, and maybe I need to set a similar task for myself as I prepare for a class. When scientists are observing phenomena, they use tools like microscopes and telescopes, but my fairly fit eyes and ears are the only tools I need in the classroom.  I simply need to look and listen with sincerity. There are things to see and hear in Room 2 that are far more fascinating than sneakers brushing across cement at six on a May morning.

* * * * *
          I am the “official” English teacher for my students, but I don’t for a minute kid myself: there are countless unofficial teachers out there doing a marvelous job of making the students skillful readers and writers. The scholars come to my classroom for 48 minutes each day and respectfully listen to my lessons and suggestions, but for many hours each day they learn from the lessons of their unsanctioned, off-the-record English teachers. Every spoken sentence they hear is a lesson in the use of words to convey thoughts, and every written phrase they read is full of messages about how to make, or not make, written words speak with influence and grace. Even listening to their favorite song lyrics lets them know some of the secrets of using words to win people’s hearts. Of course, one of my students’ best English teachers is simply the books they read for pleasure.  The more they read, the more they learn about making sentences move with style and strength. It doesn’t matter if the book is a best-selling, shallow story for the beach or a classic to be slowly absorbed: no matter what, the sentences will teach their intrinsic lessons about the difference between graceful and clumsy writing. I respect what I do as a trained and salaried English teacher, but I’m fully aware that I’m not alone. The kids have a bevy of books and songs and spoken sentences around them throughout their days, all dutifully doing the work of teaching reading and writing. 

* * * * *

         I sometimes stop at a park overlooking the Connecticut River to see the small boats of a beginners sailing class in the distance, and it usually starts me thinking about my students. Far off, I see the undersized sails fluttering and tilting as they follow a small powerboat, upon which (though I can’t see for sure) the sailing instructor is no doubt standing and gesturing. I hear his voice, very faintly, as he calls out commands and directions and occasionally sounds an air horn.   Around and back the small boats go, sailing in circles, slanting and leaning, learning their lessons. Now and then the sounds of yells and laughter float across the river and up the hill to where I sit with thoughts about my students in English class. They, too, are learning to “sail”, in a sense, as they maneuver their way through stories and poems and their weekly writing assignments.  As the teacher, I’m in the “lead boat”, delivering the day’s instructions: “Be sure to use transitions between paragraphs.” “Focus on whoever is talking.”  “Let’s read page 16.” Like the boats with their young sailors on the river, my students must lean this way and that as the winds of the words they’re listening to or writing or reading blow strong or soft. When writing, they must let out the sails of their sentences in certain places, but in others they must write cautiously, pulling the words in snuggly. It’s arduous and tense work, this sailing and studying English, and I sympathize with the young sailors and students. Sailing a dinghy on a broad, blustery river is no simple task, and neither is steering through a year’s worth of assorted and sometimes utterly surprising English lessons.

* * * * *
         I recall a friend telling me years ago that a good way to live is to always pretend you’re holding a spoonful of water in your hand while wearing a silly costume The point she was making, I think, is that it’s important to be 100 percent focused, no matter what we’re doing, but also 100 percent wild and crazy. The focus gives us the ability to be totally present with the task at hand, while the craziness enables us to feel the wideness and elasticity of the situation. I thought of this today in a 9th grade class, because it came to me that I had forgotten the silly costume. I was holding the spoonful of water, all right – utterly focused on the lesson I had planned, keeping my sights on the next steps, never wavering from what I had arranged to do. I was holding the spoonful of the lesson with complete concentration and resolve. Nothing was going to deter me from carrying it all the way to the last second of class. Trouble is, I had forgotten the silly costume. I had forgotten that focus and attention to detail must be combined with vision and whimsy and sometimes pure comedy – that attention to goals without the balancing touch of looseness and inspiration is an open door to dullness. I was carrying the spoonful of water without spilling a drop, but the kids’ interest, I’m afraid, was disappearing into daydream land. It’s a good reminder for me – to always mix some natural madness with my orderly approach to teaching. It’s what nature does, after all – a perfectly pristine morning followed by boisterous winds in the afternoon. My classes can’t be all tidiness and temperate weather. If I’m teaching sincerely and from the heart, some loose and boundless winds will sometimes blow through the class, and silly costumes will surely be seen.

* * * * *
         Today, as I was climbing the hills near my house for my morning exercise, the cars randomly coming and going reminded me of the arbitrariness and uncertainty that inevitably make up a part of my English classes. Surely all the cars knew precisely where they were going, just as I like to think I know exactly where I’m going in each class – but in my case, there’s way more arbitrariness than I like to admit. For one thing, my thoughts are among the most haphazard of all events. When I’m planning a lesson or teaching a class, thoughts crisscross through my mind like cars gone crazy. I can pretend that my thoughts arrive at the doors of my mind like orderly servants, but the truth is quite different. If cars on the street behaved like my thoughts, disorder and dread would rule. My students, too, must sense some of this randomness as they work on their weekly writing assignments. Perhaps they, too, notice how their thoughts sort of speed along the streets of their minds, dashing together into phrases and forcing their way into the traffic of sentences in the essay.  Some of their best ideas are possibly also the most whimsical and reckless, just randomly rushing around in their minds, getting lost, crashing, coming to a dead stop sometimes. It’s a marvel, really, that the students ever manage to systematically park some thoughts in an essay, and that I sometimes am able to steer a few accidental ideas into a structured and competent lesson.   

* * * * *
“Rex and Anna hurried away through the sunshine which was suddenly solemn to them.”
         -- George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

         I was struck by the phrase “solemn sunshine” this morning because it brought to mind the puzzling world I face each day in English class. As I glance around at my teenage students, I see both sunshine and solemnity, both the joyousness of childish life and the gravity of heavily burdened boys and girls. There’s summer on one girl’s face and dark December on another’s. It’s always that way, day after day – always a mixture of the lightness of being 14 and the weary seriousness of being 14. I need to remember this when I’m teaching. I may come into the classroom carrying the inner light of the love of my grandchildren, which is fine, but what about the student in the second row whose distress knows no boundaries, or the girl in the back who gives nothing of her kindness to anyone, ever? To these two kids, the sunshine I’m feeling inside must seem as solemn as a memorial service as it spreads out from me (which a teacher’s moods inevitably do). Even a bright and breezy poem can seem as burdensome as bricks on your shoulders if you bring a heavy heart to it. I’ll try to keep this in mind tomorrow. If sunlight lays itself across the blossoming trees outside my classroom windows and all seems heartening and hopeful, I’ll try to remember that there may be, right there in the sun-drenched room, some students whose sorrow makes even the brightest of days seem bleak to them.

* * * * *
         I need to have a little more mercy on myself. When things go off-course in the classroom, I need to loosen up and smile instead of censuring myself. Rather than giving way to discouragement, I should probably just be cheerfully inquisitive about where my lesson went askew. I should probably just grin, get out my detective’s badge, and go off on a hunt for the reasons for the sidetracked class. As a youngster, I was taught to be merciful to people, and shouldn’t that include myself?  If I show mercy to my students when their youthful foolishness occasionally lets itself loose in my classes, shouldn’t I do the same for myself, a loyal but limited teacher who always tries but frequently fails? Like the good father in the Bible, shouldn’t I warmly welcome myself back, the penitent prodigal seeking mercy for a messed up lesson? The universe, after all, is a vast place, large enough to easily and comfortingly hold zillions of mistakes. So what if I break a lesson into pieces before it barely gets started? It’s just a mistake, and mistakes are as common – and as essential – as wrinkled leaves in autumn. Old leaves make soil and soil makes new leaves, and my stumbles in the classroom create a chance for mercy, which I, being a resident of this generous universe, have a copious supply of and should be happy to distribute to myself when asked.

* * * * *

         Driving along a country road near school today, it occurred to me that my English class lessons this year were sometimes not as easy to travel as this clean, clearly marked road. If I asked my students whether it was easy for them to follow our program of study from week to week, and whether they were always able to see the overall map and the eventual destination, I’m afraid their answer might not be an entirely spirited yes.  In my attempts to try new directions and travel out of the ordinary paths this year, I may have accidentally led the students into some roadless regions that left them fairly befuddled. In trying to improve my teaching by mixing traditional with untried methods, I may have forgotten the importance of plain maps and painless roads. As I thought about it while driving this morning, I realized that I never go anywhere except on designated roads, highways, sidewalks, or paths – and I should definitely offer that luxury to my students. I never wander aimlessly through pathless forests, nor do I drive my car across pastures and playing fields. I always travel on legitimate roads and trails, which is what my students, I’m sure, would like to do in English class. Like me, they would like to always know where they are going and precisely how they will get there. They would like to have the year’s big-picture map in front of them, as well as a detailed map for each daily leg of the journey. Sadly, I’m not sure I always gave them that this year. I’m afraid my desire to dream big and break out new technology tools might have sometimes made it a mystifying journey for the kids. Unlike my car cruising on shipshape roads toward an obvious destination, the students might have occasionally felt stranded in a classroom wasteland.

* * * * *
         I often come to class well armed with preconceived notions, opinions, conclusions, verdicts, and utter seriousness, but, almost without fail, my students do something within the first few minutes to totally disarm me. They are a charming lot, these teens from far different planets than mine. A youthful smile flashed like a sparkle of sunshine can cause my careful reserve to crumble pretty quickly, and giggles from a few fourteen-year-olds can almost always start me smiling, no matter how staid and humorless I had intended to be. As the years have passed, I have found the harmless foolishness and ingenuousness of teenagers to be more and more beguiling.  In a world gone crazy with seriousness and self-absorption, my young students bring a refreshing measure of madness and generosity to my life. They live their lives like cars careening around cliffs and sharp corners, sometimes smashing up, I’m sure, but always traveling in a sort of boundless and sincere way.  They are irresistible in their ability to bring me down from my pretentious, bookish heights with a grin or a goofy joke. They can win me over so simply, even by staring with joyfulness at a strange, bright bird outside on the feeder when they’re supposed to be bending over a passage from The Tempest. They know, and I should, that a red-breasted grosbeak in spring beats ten-syllable lines any day.

* * * * *
         Looking at a small patterned rug in my living room this morning made me think of my students and the patterns of our studies in English class. I often fret that my lessons may not always follow a noticeable pattern – may not always flow in an artistic manner so as to set up a seamless design for the students – but then I suppose there’s always a pattern to things, whether I am perceptive enough to see it or not. Even a spring day of seemingly disorderly winds and storms has a definite design that would be evident to any meteorologist. Even the most furious forest fire rages on in a certain distinct process, following a pattern a forestry scientist would easily understand.  I must continue to make orderly lesson plans for class, but I must also have a little more trust in the unseen patterns that sometimes influence my classes. I intend my lessons to follow certain blueprints, but there may be other undisclosed blueprints shaping themselves even while I teach the lessons. As I trust the weather to follow its intrinsic systems, I must learn to trust the teaching and learning in my classroom to do the same. If I do my best to prepare orderly lessons, all I can do then is have faith that various useful patterns will materialize in a smooth and certain manner.

* * * * *
         This morning, as I took my daily exercise hiking up and down the hills near my house, the extraordinary thought came to me that I was in the middle of an art museum – one that might not have any boundaries.  As implausible as it sounds, the scenes I was seeing as I walked seemed to have the beauty of the best paintings I’ve seen in New York and London. Wherever I looked were settings that could be set in frames to shine forth from the walls of museums. There was the luster of streetlights on surrounding trees, the glow of lamps in a few windows, shadows shaking in the occasional winds, and over all, the coming of the first sunlight above the trees. It sounds fanciful, but anywhere I looked I could have framed my fingers to make a scene that, to me, seemed to rival Rembrandt’s and Van Gogh’s.  I carried that thought through my morning classes, and I soon realized, with the same kind of wonder, that my classroom is an extension of the museum I was in this morning. It’s hard to describe, but every student seemed to be dressed for a painter’s portrait, and every assortment of poses and movements and spoken words seemed ready to be framed. The way kids turned their heads to listen, their slight movements in chairs, their shifting expressions as the lesson proceeded, the play of light on faces and arms, even the flutter of leaves outside the windows – all seemed made for the handsomest paintings. It made me a little giddy, actually – sort of rushed-off-my-feet by commonplace, everyday, museum-type magnificence.

* * * * *
         I often fret about the quality of my teaching, but it’s interesting that I never worry about the quality of the sky. The sky, as the saying goes, is what it is – stationary in solid blue at seven, cloud-dappled at eleven, stormy with encircling winds at six, star-spangled at midnight. Not even a fool would insist that the sky is “better” at one time than another; it’s different, yes, and perhaps unpleasant to us sometimes, but it’s always just the same high-quality sky. Its natural “skyness” is always perfect. Why, then, does my teaching so often seem imperfect, flawed, deficient, and simply unsatisfactory? Why can’t I appreciate a day’s work in the classroom the way I appreciate the sky – as an ever-changing and vastly interesting phenomenon? Some skies are overcast, and some English lessons move slowly and hesitantly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are fruitless. An artist might see something special in a dismal sky, and I need to see the distinctive qualities of every class I teach, not just the so-called successful ones.  After all, some of my students may see wisdom and a blessing in a lesson that seemed a shameful disappointment to me. They might see sweetness and light where I see only the cloudiness of unsatisfactory teaching.

* * * * *
         As often as possible, I like to sit in different chairs around the classroom, often right amongst the students, just to offer myself as many perspectives as possible. My usual “teacher” chair is a soft, adjustable one, but this morning I sat in one of the student’s regular chairs, and it was a significant change for me. The chair  was lower, for one thing, so I felt smaller and, I guess, less important, less necessary. It momentarily sent me back fifty years to the time when, like many of my students, I was a somewhat unsure and hesitant kid trying his best to stay out of sight in the classroom. As I sat in the small chair this morning, I felt again that sense of being just another unremarkable student in the vast apparatus of official education. Earlier in the week I sat in a chair facing the windows, from where I could see blossoming bushes and trees, as well as  birds being their full-of-life springtime selves. It was a revelation for me, because I found my attention strongly drawn away from my own lesson plan and toward the look of the outdoors, especially the goldfinches flying back and forth like little flames.  As the teacher, I was perhaps the most distracted student in the classroom for a few moments. The Tempest was not nearly as fascinating as the irrepressible life I was looking at through the window. On another occasion, when I was sitting among the students and surrounded by four hulking boys, I had this sense of being a small hill among mountains. At one point, the boys coughed almost in unison, and I’m sure I recall thinking of quakes and upheavals as I felt the force and noise of their coughs. It was an efficient reminder to me that a teacher should be a sturdy leader out front, yes, but also, now and then, a student among his students, struggling like them to respond to surprises and stay alert, striving like them to feel the flow of at least a little confidence. 

* * * * *
         This morning, as I was eating breakfast, I started worrying about a situation in one of my classes, but the pendulum clock in the living room pretty quickly quieted me down. It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ll be fussing and stewing around the house, consoling myself about one misfortune or another, and suddenly I’ll notice the steady sound of the clock – the clicking that’s constant in troubles or triumphs, sorrows or exaltations.  Whether I’m laid low by bad news of the worst kind or thrilled by some cheerful thought, the clock still keeps its unvarying cadence. If I’m walking out into a day of predicaments and possible bombshells, the clock, as I close the door, will be dutifully doing its work. Actually, most of our universe is like that – planets and stars and hearts and lungs performing their work with utter regularity, no matter if my life is rising to new heights or going bust before my eyes.  If I’m looking for reliability, all I have to do is step out the door and see the stars in their everlasting places, or listen to my lungs letting air in moment after moment after moment. I may be a bust as a teacher every so often, but even then, the earth is dependably circling the sun at the precisely proper speed. It’s a comforting thought – that a zillion things keep occurring with complete reliability no matter how luckless my life may sometimes seem. If a lesson on alliteration in Hopkins hits a wall, oh well, at least my clock back home is doing trustworthy work.

* * * * *
         I should place this reminder front and center on my desk in my classroom: “Expand your awareness!” It’s become clear to me over the years that almost every problem I have encountered as a teacher has been caused by my own unimaginative, unadventurous, small-minded view of what’s happening. Because I often see things through the zoom instead of the wide-angle lens, my classroom sometimes seems like a small and restricted place, and my students like painfully imperfect learners with considerably more shortcomings than strengths. When I have this narrow view of things, I seem to be operating in an educational world made up, essentially, of small and inflexible perimeters. In this kind of classroom universe, everything is tight and tense, which is why I wish I had that sign as a reminder. I need to say to myself, “Open your eyes! The universe is limitless! Look up and out!”  The truth is that when I see limitations all around me, it’s because I choose to see them. I could just as easily use the wide-angle lens to expand my awareness and see nothing but stretching horizons – nothing but kids who can throw their thoughts to the farthest perspective, and a teacher who needs to learn to let the world be as widespread as it really is. In this kind of measureless classroom world, no thoughts would be unusable and no achievements would be out of the question. This kind of widened awareness would make a classroom what the universe is – a boundless place for truly unrestrained learning.

* * * * *

         Over the years (centuries, I guess), much has been written about the importance of experiencing the “flow” of life, and lately, as May has generously blossomed around my school’s campus, I’ve been feeling some of that flow in my teaching. I guess I’m seeing more clearly that teaching English, or any subject, is a lot like floating down a stream that’s as widespread as the sea – not just a small English class stream, but a stream sent from the universe. All school subjects, all things to be learned, all events, all thoughts, all thrills and sorrows are in this stream that my students and I are flowing with. In this stream there’s no separate course called English -- not even, strange as it sounds, any separate students and teachers. It’s all one, this stream, and it contains all the creations and gifts of the universe, and we are among them, my spirited teenage students and their somewhat shriveled but still zealous teacher. This is the flow I’ve been feeling each day lately – the endless coursing of the universe right through my classroom.  Sure, it’s convenient to say that I’m a separate teacher, that my subject is separate from all others, and that my students are detached and distinct individuals, but the truth is stranger and more marvelous. Every word we say in my classroom rolls out, in due course, to the ends of the world, and every sentence that students in far off places speak somehow draws close to us on Barnes Road in Connecticut.  When it comes to learning, all boundaries are illusions. We teachers work with thoughts in class, and thoughts easily stream through and over any make-believe boundary lines. These days the graceful flow of May’s breezes has made it easy for me to forget struggling and striving to be a super-teacher, and instead, to just ease back and be part of the insistent stream of learning that’s carrying all of us who knows where. 

* * * * *
         At five this morning, the tunes the first birds were singing around my neighborhood started me thinking about my students and the words they speak in English class.  The songs of the birds were of every possible variety, and so are the students’ spoken words. Some birds sang softly almost to the point of being soundless, just as some of my students share their thoughts like shy squirrels squeaking from behind a bush. Other birds this morning were making the proudest of melodies, pouring out music as if they personally had possession of the entire town, which made me think of students whose voices seem to rise up with earnest confidence when they speak.  Some birds sang in short chirps of sound followed by long moments of silence, just as some students say a few distinctive words and then rest in the ease of stillness. And surely there were birds stationed in trees who sang no songs at all, but simply sat on limbs and listened and looked, like the kids in my classes who stay still from start to finish, perhaps finding some special serenity and inspiration in their silence.  We need them all, of course – all the various bird songs (even the silent ones) and each of the numerous ways my students speak or stay quiet. We need, in equal measure, the soft and noisy birds and the shy and strident students. It’s the mixture, the bizarre assortment, that makes the music of springtime birds and youthful students so extraordinary.

* * * * *
         A peculiar and comforting thought came to me today while my students were taking a quiz: I am breathing. Of course, I’ve been breathing for nearly 69 years, but at that moment I actually noticed my breathing. As the kids were working on the quiz, I found myself simply following the flow of my breathing – in, out, in, out, in, out. Unlike my usual practice while in the classroom, I wasn’t doing anything – not organizing my desk, not checking my email, not grading quizzes from an earlier class, not going over the lesson for the next class. I was simply observing my breathing -- and, quite honestly, I was fairly surprised by it. I guess what I found most intriguing was the fact that the breathing was being done without my help. This perhaps seems obvious – yes, of course, our lungs do breathe routinely, even when we’re sleeping – but it was a bit of a bombshell to me as I stood in a square of sunshine by the window. It was like a startling disclosure: I don’t have to do anything to make my lungs work. My lungs were rising and falling due to some force other than my personal willpower, and they’ve been operating in this autonomous way for all the moments of my life.  I stood silently with this awareness as the kids finished their quizzes. I felt my lungs reliably lifting and falling on their own, and, when the students had handed in their papers and left, I turned and saw spring tree limbs unreservedly swaying and sunlight overspreading some stepping-stones, both with no assistance from me. It was good to realize, once again, that this far-reaching universe finds its own wonderful way without my particular help. Later, I looked at the quizzes on my desk and knew they would get graded, somehow, with precision and ease.  

* * * * *
         I often think I’d rather be more of an impartial witness in my classes than someone called “the teacher”. As the official English teacher of my students, I’ve too often been the classic busybody, so beside myself with doing, striving, arranging, and accomplishing, that I almost never find time to stand back and simply observe what’s happening. An uncommon assortment of surprises reveals itself in each of my classes, but I rarely see it because of my fascination with doing, doing, doing. If dozens of flourishing roses miraculously materialized in the center of the classroom, I probably wouldn’t notice it, absorbed as I am in my incessant teacherly duties. What if I sat at the seashore on a flawless summer day and did nothing but draw up lesson plans for future classes – face buried in a notebook, never bothering to bring my eyes up to be surprised by the life of the surf and the brilliance of sea birds in their paradise? Or what if I sat among wondrous mountains and saw nothing but the words in a book I brought – saw neither imperious hillsides nor summits with pennants of clouds? I’m not suggesting that I can actually stop teaching and simply step back and observe for 48 minutes, but I am looking for a little less relentless doing and a little more thoughtful watching. Even while I’m teaching a lesson I can be an attentive witness, taking a seat in my mind and watching these teenage students and their teacher playing the elaborate and absorbing game called education.

* * * * *
         Not too long ago, “whatever” was a reply in common use by teenagers, and today I got to thinking that I could profitably employ it now and then in English class.  The word is generally used to emphasize a lack of restriction, as in “Do whatever you like”, or “Take whatever action is needed”, and I occasionally find myself needing to say exactly that to my students. Sometimes, when they’re writing an essay, they need to break away from the various academic curbs and constraints they’re accustomed to and just do “whatever”. That’s what writers from Shakespeare to Joyce Carol Oates often did, and sometimes it’s what youthful writers need to do – just go for it, take a gamble, put it on the line. Being attentive to directions and rubrics is important, but so is going for broke every so often. I think of athletes in this regard – basketball players, for instance.  No game is more restricted by boundaries and rules than basketball, and yet I’ve often heard of coaches telling their players before a game to just “go out there and have fun”. Sometimes coaches will say “play loose” and “don’t think too much” and “play like when you were kids”.  Essentially they’re saying, “Do whatever”, and I need to say that to my students now and then. When the kids get so caught up in directives and requirements that writing with strength and authenticity becomes an impossibility, I need to call a time out and remind them that written words should be windows to the heart, not white flags of surrender to a thousand rules.  Like a coach, I sometimes need to say (maybe even shout),  “Go for it! Take a chance! Let out the sails! Put the pedal to the metal! You’re only 14 once! Write whatever!”

* * * * *
         When I overheard a teacher say to a student the other day, “Get busy. You can’t just do nothing,” I recall thinking to myself, “Why not?” It has often occurred to me that one of my students’ biggest problems might actually be the fact that they’re always doing something. In my class, I expect them to either be taking notes painstakingly, listening carefully, speaking clearly, or thinking deeply. I was raised to believe that the successful life consists, for the most part, in nonstop doing, and I guess that’s generally the way I’ve run my classes. Like most teachers, I don’t offer “doing nothing” as an option. However, I must confess to sometimes asking myself, “Why not?” Why can’t students occasionally not take notes, not speak, not even listen, not even – shocking as it sounds – think? Why can’t they, at least for a few moments, simply be alive, without doing anything at all? Surprisingly, this kind of silent and stationary liveliness might actually help my students “get more done” in class. If they could, at least occasionally, drop out of their accustomed academic lifestyle of just routinely doing one school task after another after another, they might actually be able to see and hear more clearly what’s happening in class. If they could simply notice (just notice, not busily think about) what’s going on – notice the color of a classmate’s shirt, notice the way the teacher’s eyes move when he talks, even notice the special movements of trees outside as breezes blow along – maybe they would be better able to notice the main points of my lesson. It sounds strange, I know – a bunch of kids doing absolutely nothing in class for a few moments – but there might be some magic in making life grow slow and silent now and then. Suddenly, my words might make a little music instead of just the usual noise.

* * * * *

         This morning, taking my usual early walk, I passed a bush of roses I had never noticed before, and it made me wonder about the beautiful things I have failed to notice in my classes. I probably passed these roses on at least seven previous mornings and never saw them – strolled right past them in my typically automatic manner. When I noticed them this morning, they were startling in their modest loveliness, as though they had just miraculously materialized there. I wondered why I had missed them, why I had been so adrift in my thoughts that I hadn’t seen such a lovely sight.
Further down the street, I also started noticing the shadows at this time of sunrise – my own shadow slowly altering as I passed close to and then away from streetlights, and the shadows of trees and shrubs shaking in the morning winds. They made a kind of darkish beauty, which, again, I had never noticed before. I knew they had been there each morning, making their gray charm, but I had missed them completely. As I sipped my cup of coffee back home, I wondered what I’ve missed in the 604 English classes I’ve taught so far this year. How many kids more miraculous than any roses have I taken no notice of during a class? How many words spoken from student hearts have risen right past my careless ears?

* * * * *
         On most days I enjoy some good laughs at school, and what I often find funniest are my own thoughts. Before school, when thoughts of inadequacy and downright dread are sometimes dashing around in my mind, I can occasionally see all those passionate, attention-seeking thoughts as though they are simply on a stage and I’m in the audience – and then I have to laugh at their silliness. It’s as if I don’t even know the thoughts, as though they’re strange actors swaggering around with their ridiculous self-importance. From this viewpoint, a thought like “I’m not sure I’m thoroughly prepared for 9A” becomes just an innocuous and silly player prancing in the theater of my mind. I also have a hearty laugh after school now and then, especially if I’m recalling a lesson that completely collapsed earlier in the day. When I see the thoughts that put that spindly lesson together, and how flimsy and unrealistic they were, I often laugh right out loud.  The teacher next door might hear me and think I’ve just thought of a good joke, and she would be right, in a sense. The joke, so often, is on my own thoughts, those puffed-up imposters who act as if they are awe-inspiring power brokers, but who are really just boyish actors huffing and puffing and playing their harmless roles. It’s fun to watch them and have a good laugh.

* * * * *
         When I think about teaching, “just simply” is a phrase that often comes to mind. One of my major goals is to show the students that there’s a fair degree of simplicity inherent in all they’re required to do and learn in my class. Life, and being a 9th grade English student, must sometimes seem overwhelmingly complicated to the kids, and I hope to uncover the ease and straightforwardness that usually lies just below the puzzling surface of things. Writing a formal essay can seem like an impossibly intricate task, and some students get lost in their obsessive planning and fretting, so occasionally I have to remind them to just simply sit down and do their best. I also have to remind myself, since I can easily go straying off into compulsive worrying about how complicated my responsibilities are. When teaching English starts to seem like rocket science, I have to take myself back to the plain truth: I’m just simply supposed to help 14-year-olds read and write a little better than they could last year. I don’t have to remake the students’ minds or shape them into superstars – just simply encourage them to continue caring about the sentences they write and read.  I don’t mean to suggest that teaching teenagers isn’t hard work, or that it’s free of disappointments and disasters – just that it’s probably a much simpler task than I usually realize.  This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I think of the old story about the man who, when he found himself in a room with the window shades pulled down, started to fret about how complicated it was going to be to bring light into the room. Luckily, someone from outside shouted, “Just simply raise the shades!” In my teaching, I need to just simply do my best each moment, and let the learning unfurl as it will.  

* * * * *
         In one of John Keats’ poems, he uses the phrase “gentle empire”, which I love because it suggests exactly the kind of classroom atmosphere I try to maintain. It has to be an empire, and I have to be the emperor, because today’s teenagers badly need adults who will stand at the helm and steer the ship. For some inexplicable reason, many adults these days have deserted their posts of leadership and seem to be trembling somewhere behind their children, but not in Room 2 at my school. Inside that 9th grade classroom is Mr. Salsich’s empire, where the children are simply what children always are – badly informed, bewildered, fearful, and sometimes utterly off course – and where the adult is what an adult should be – in charge. However, there’s room for gentleness in the best of empires. A ruler can be both commanding and good-natured, both forceful and affable, and so can an English teacher. I hope my students see my classroom empire as a place where strict rules are nicely balanced by optimism and cheerfulness. However, it’s still an empire. I am my students’ guide and boss, not their friend, mostly because friendship is not what they need from me. They get friendship from other 14-year-olds; from me they need leadership – not the kind that browbeats and pesters, but the kind that both pushes and praises, both makes the laws and gently lets the spirits of his students rise up higher and higher.

* * * * *

         Last week, I was totally preoccupied during one of my classes, and later, when I checked the dictionary, I realized that, to all intents and purposes, an enemy had seized me. The word “occupy” derives from the Latin for “seize”, so when my mind is preoccupied, it has virtually been seized by some formidable thought. I don’t recall the exact nature of the thought that had taken hold of my mind during that class, but I do remember the feeling of being mentally “in custody”. The thought, whatever it was, had me in handcuffs for at least the first half of the class. As I think about it today, I wonder how much of my teaching life has been spent in various kinds of preoccupation. Of course, there have been those occasional dark days when my mind was busy with thoughts of a personal problem, but there have probably also been too many days when some small but swashbuckling thought threw its weight around and managed to shackle me right in the presence of my students.  I recall one such day when, believe it or not, I couldn’t stop thinking about which casual shirts I should buy for the summer, Orvis or Lands End. I was teaching the tail end of The Tempest, but the casual shirts decision kept carrying me away from Prospero’s final speech. My students might have made distinguished statements about the speech, but my thoughts, alas, were on shirts instead of students, and so their words almost certainly coasted right past me. What’s really disappointing is how often this kind of inattention happens when I’m simply preoccupied with what I’m going to say next. Just today, a student was speaking about a line of poetry, and I know, thinking back, that I didn’t hear him with full awareness because I was formulating what I wanted to say about the line. This kind of distressing failure happens way too often in my teaching. I need to do better. I need to stand sentry for my mind, making sure it stays free and spirited for this hard work of teaching teenagers.  

* * * * *

         I often heard my mother use the phrase, “for the love of all that’s holy”, and nowadays those words often come to mind when I consider the good fortune I’ve found in my life as a teacher. As the many years have passed, I’ve come to realize that I enjoy teaching for precisely that reason – for the love of all that’s holy. Here I don’t use the word ‘holy’ in a religious sense, but rather in the sense of something being hallowed, or greatly revered and respected. My classroom has become a hallowed place for me, a place of prestige and high-mindedness, a place where work of the highest significance is carried on. Each time I arrive at the classroom, I feel like bowing in respectfulness before entering. It’s for this reason that I expect the students to enter in a dignified manner – no loud talking, no horseplay, just earnest scholars entering a place set aside for distinguished work. This by no means rules out lightheartedness, for laughs and smiles are acts of respectful camaraderie, and they belong in the most inviolable places, whether churches or classrooms. In a serious classroom, there can and should be an abundance of cheerfulness. Indeed, students are sometimes the most cheerful when they sense that both they and their work are being treated with respect and a certain amount of solemnity. I don’t go to church on Sunday, but maybe I go several times each day at school. Emily Dickinson said her church was her orchard and the choir was a bobolink, so perhaps it’s not too implausible to say my church is Room 2 and the kids create the music that blesses. 

* * * * *
         I have a box of tissues on my desk at school, and it often serves as a good reminder of the kind of teacher I hope to be. The box doesn’t do anything but sit there on the desk and be ready to help. It’s not a busybody box. It doesn’t push itself into kids’ faces, doesn’t walk around the room showing off its tissue-ness, doesn’t try to micromanage the students’ sneezes and coughs. It just sits and waits. If it had a face, it would have an observant and caring expression, entirely alert and ready to help when needed. As a teacher, I wish I had a little more of the tissue box in me. For sure, there are times when I need to be up and about, giving instructions and support to the scholars, but there are also times when I should keep my overbearing self out of the picture, and, like a good tissue box, simply wait to be of assistance. When I’m teaching, I easily fall into the role of commander and manager, and lose sight of the crucial role of observer and helper. Good managers know when to stop managing and start allowing – when to stop being at the center and start staying on the fringes, carefully following the progress of the work. My tissue box knows how to shut up, stay still, and wait – and I’m still learning that essential skill. I’m trying to remember that waiters and watchers perform vital tasks as often as movers and shakers. As Milton reminded us, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

* * * * *
         Somewhere in the Bible the phrase “signs and wonders” is used, and this morning, for some reason, I began thinking about it, and about the signs and wonders in my work as a teacher. More and more I find my classroom to be a place of amazement and marvel. My students are your standard, mainstream teenagers, and yet there’s something singular and distinguishing about each of them – some strange inner exhilaration that makes them sparkle in unexpected ways. I notice it almost every day – the way one student’s eyes twinkle in new ways, the way another student’s shirt seems to stand out in the eastern light from the windows, the way a girl’s bracelets bring brightness into the room. Just yesterday, during a discussion of Romeo and Juliet, I noticed the shifting patterns of sunlight on a student’s face as he spoke of Juliet’s sorrow, and then the graceful turn of a classmate’s head to listen. Mind you, I’m not always this observant; in fact, more often than not I go through a class with something like blinders on. I push through the steps of the lesson with severe resolve, rarely noticing the sorrow or high spirits or dreariness on faces, or the way someone’s chin rests on her hand, or the way Billy’s eyes speedily blink as an exceptional thought takes place inside him. Sometimes, luckily, I do see the signs and wonders that are surely always present, like last week when a girl gave all of us a completely fresh understanding of Juliet’s father. As soon as she finished speaking, it was like thoughts had been set alight around the room. I could see it in faces, the flush that comes with the rise of a new awareness. It was a dark day outside, but Room 2, for those moments, was a sunny place to be.

* * * * *
         I don’t attend church on Sundays, but perhaps my classroom is my church. I’ve decided, after doing some dictionary work, that it might be correctly said that I worship in my classroom. The word “worship” comes from the Old English word weorthscipe, or worthship; just as we have seamanship and scholarship, the early English speakers talked of worthship – the quality of being worth something, or worthy. A place of worship, then, was simply a place of worth, or a worthy place, and my classroom certainly fits that description. In a given year, each of my students spends about 160 hours in my classroom, so it better be a place of worth – a place where worthy activities take place. Each lesson I teach should have a specific and measurable value for the students, and each student should take away an appreciable profit from every class. I might put it this way: the students and their parents should get their money’s worth from my English class.  If I’m a tolerable teacher – if I provide lessons of some value and consequence for my students – then I do have a right to say my classroom is a place of worship, or worthship. It’s a room that’s worth something. It’s a worthwhile place for my students and me to be. It’s worth entering each day. The demanding work is worth it, which is why I insist that the students always work for all they are worth.     
* * * * *
         Driving through the countryside to visit my grandchildren last week, I passed some fresh spring fields that looked positively joyful. Someone might snicker at the thought of a field feeling happy, but I tend to ignore that kind of anthropocentrism, being sure that the measureless universe “feels” in countless ways besides the human way. The fields I passed seemed joyful to me mostly because they we’re doing precisely what they were supposed to be doing – waving in the spring winds from the west. They were being absolutely perfect fields, and what better cause for joy than perfection? Another way of saying the fields were joyful would be to say they caused joy in me. I sometimes speak of “the joys of a bike ride”, and I can speak, in the same way, of the joys of these fields.  There was something invisible in their shades of gold and the give and take of their swaying that sent me joyous thoughts as I passed by. This all has to do with teaching teenagers, because I sometimes sense a similar joyousness in the nonhuman things in my classroom. I always keep flowers front and center in a vase in my classroom, and often I feel the simple joys of having flowers close by. I also sometimes notice the pleasant, almost pleased look of my whiteboard as it stands clean and well-equipped for the kids, and the five wide windows with their clear panes of springtime light these days remind me of the joys of having windows to let in a day’s brightness. I’m fairly sure windows can’t actually feel joyful, but I’m also sure they can create joyfulness for students who have been staring at some obscure lines of Shakespeare and suddenly look up to see the light of an impressive June day through the glass.  

* * * * *

“Very slight words and deeds may have a sacramental efficacy, if we can cast our self-love behind us, in order to say or do them.”
         -- George Eliot, in Felix Holt, The Radical
         When I’m teaching, I often focus so much on conveying the major points of my lesson that I lose sight of the power of “slight words and deeds”. My method of communicating the themes of the lesson is important, but so are my small gestures and actions, as well as the many assorted comments I make during class. Even the way I greet a student could almost “have a sacramental efficacy”, as Eliot puts it – almost the power of something sacred, something placed in the student’s hands with reverence and respect. If I look directly at a student and say “good morning” with consideration and sincerity (not casually and carelessly), the student might, for a moment, feel set apart with a special stature.  Eliot says it requires that I “cast […] self-love behind” me, meaning I must step out of my separate, self-absorbed existence and be thoroughly present with my students. I’m often only two-thirds present when I’m teaching, partially there in the classroom but also, in some measure, far away with my traveling thoughts.  In order to give my smallest gestures and most ordinary words an air of distinctiveness, I have to drop my separateness, step away from superiority and airiness, and stay steadily where I am, right in the midst of some inimitable teenagers. If I take my full presence with them seriously, then even a turn of my head, a slight smile, a simple sentence like “What do you think, Tom?” could feel like a stroke of good fortune to a young person.

* * * * *
         Years ago, I somehow picked up the mistaken notion that the word “attention” derives from the Latin word meaning “to hold”, but I’m glad I made that mistake, for it reminds me that when I genuinely pay attention to my students, I am, in a sense, holding them in a gentle and appreciative way. To me, paying attention doesn’t just mean watching and listening; it means attending to the students with wholeheartedness. When I attend to my students, I hold them in my awareness, look after their talents and needs, and truly care for them. Oddly, as I found out a few years ago, the word “attend” actually stems from the Latin word “tendere”, meaning to stretch – which also helps me understand what paying attention to students really involves. If I’m genuinely attentive to my students, it means I’m stretching myself out to them, reaching beyond the borders of my personal interests and concerns. This kind of attentiveness is hard work, for it requires forcing myself to extend my awareness, widen the perimeters of my sympathy, and truly enlarge my life. It’s not easy for me, even after all these years. Perhaps all this holding and stretching is why I’m dog-tired at dinner time, day after day.

* * * * *
         Lately, on these final frenzied days of school, the “weather” in my classroom has been unsettled and sometimes tempestuous. As the school year draws to a close, the kids find it hard to control their summertime desires, and so my classroom is less composed than usual. Like sunshine among clouds, free-flowing chatter breaks out more often, and shifting in seats is sometimes as steady as gusts on a blustery day. This time of year, several days can pass without one serene hour for a teacher to take pleasure in. However, I’ve gradually come to understand the weather patterns in my classroom, and therefore the occasional tempests and droughts don’t disturb me as much as they did when I was a younger, more power-conscious teacher. At this late point in my career, I can usually sit back and quietly watch the weather of the kids’ behavior, taking a curious interest in when and how it will change. Of course, I manage the students’ behavior as much as any conscientious teacher does, but I also try to remember that teaching is a lot like sailing: the weather always changes, and you have to work with the changes, not against them. When the energy patterns in the class shift (say, from quiet to talkative and contentious), I must remember to just turn my sails a bit to benefit from the new conditions. When the doldrums settle in and something like siesta time commences, I must somehow turn the drowsy atmosphere to an advantage, perhaps by taking a five minute break from the lesson, reading a short poem about weariness and tedium, and asking for reactions. Instead of fighting the languor, I could have the kids briefly examine it by way of the poem and perhaps learn a little about where it comes from – and then, back to the lesson with (I hope) improved vitality, like a spry new breeze after hours of smothering heat. 

* * * * *
         A simple approach to lessening my stress in a day’s worth of teaching would be to be less me-centered and, I might say, more universe-centered. This would automatically make my life in the classroom less rigid and self-protective, and much gentler and softer. Problems arise and grow strong only when I’m thinking of a separate, frail, and therefore vulnerable teacher – me – as the center of everything. From that perspective, my primary focus in the classroom has to be to remain solid, durable, and dead-set against any harm coming to this separate person called Mr. Salsich. It makes each day a wearing and somewhat constant exertion. However, if I shift my perspective and see my teaching world in an entirely new way, as a kind of barrier-free oneness, a classroom uni-verse in the true sense, suddenly everything softens and calms down. If there are really no boundaries between separate “things” and “persons”, and therefore no one to protect or be protected from, then teaching teenagers, all of a sudden, can be seen as an easygoing and fairly risk-free process. It enables me to loosen my grip, relax my muscles, and effortlessly give way to every experience, like a lake gives way to whatever falls into it.

* * * * *

         Just a few moments ago, sitting by a window in an airport, I saw a shining jet shoot up and disappear in the west, lost among clouds in a few seconds – similar, it seemed, to the just finished school year. The year lasted nine drawn-out months, but looking back, it seemed to blaze into and out of my life as fast as the plane I saw. The days flashed by like those silver wings went up past the window where I sat, and the weeks were just small sparkles, here and gone, like the gleams of sunshine on the vanishing plane.  Lots happened in the school year, but now, poof, it’s all left behind like the fading sound of the jet.  It’s strange, how I took my teaching so seriously, when, in fact, it’s now diminished into nothingness like puffs of wind passing by. My sometimes-showy lesson plans paraded through the days and weeks and then wandered off and are now lost somewhere as summer approaches. The tens of thousands of words my students and I spoke are no more present now than the wisps of clouds the vanishing plane passed through a few moments ago. If this sounds pessimistic, to me it’s just the opposite. Planes fading away in the west mean more planes are free to sail up from the east, and lesson plans giving up the ghost as summer starts simply make way for fresh, new-fangled lessons in the fall. The world everlastingly works from life to death and back to life, and this was the story of the finished school year. It died a peaceable death last week, thus clearing the way for a spanking new one to rise up in September.

* * * * *
         I wish I could see the breathing miracles in my classroom more often. One definition of the word miracle is “an amazing product”, and what is more amazing than an adolescent human being with all its cells shifting and transforming and its life leaping up in a brand new manner each moment? If my eyes had the power of electron microscopes, I would see dozens of marvels in the form of students each day, marvels of movement and memory and unblemished, ground-breaking thinking. Each spoken word in English class would seem a work of wizardry, and even a flash of eyes or a smile would be a spectacle to wonder at, even a single word from Sam in the back row would be cause for shouts of appreciation.

* * * * *
         I sometimes have the odd sensation that I know too much to be a good teacher. My mind occasionally feels so full of ideas – some of them boasting of being “mature” and “scholarly” – that no room is left for the simple and spotless ideas of my adolescent students. My so-called mature and experienced brain generates so much noisy thinking that, most likely, no youthful voice is able to be truly heard. It’s as if my mind is a raucous loudspeaker that constantly booms and barks its thoughts, and what youthful mental music can he heard in such a din? I wonder: Is it possible for me to unlearn, to de-teach myself, to open the bottom of my mind and let a lot of these useless ideas drain away?  Is there a way to sponge down my mind so as to free it from some of the accumulated dust of bigheaded ideas? I actually sometimes wish my brain were almost cleared out when I meet my students to discuss a poem or a story, because then the words on the page and the power of the kids’ ideas might almost stun me. If the rooms of my mind were fairly vacant, my students’ thoughts could conveniently find all kinds of space there. It could be a huge hotel with prepared and ready rooms each day. As it is now, I’m afraid the kids often find an absurdly overstuffed old house when they come to the door of my mind. “No room at the inn” might be the sign outside.

* * * * *
         It might seem silly or even preposterous to speak of feeling a sense of awe while teaching English to teenagers, but nonetheless, it’s a feeling I’ve often had. Mainly, I am often astonished at the mere fact that I’m actually granted the privilege to be a teacher of kids. Teaching young people is an honor, a mark of prestige, an exceptional gift given to only a tiny percentage of people, and, amazingly, I’ve been bestowed with that distinction for 44 consecutive years. After all this time, I’m still in awe of the fact that parents gladly entrust their beloved children to me for 48 minutes each day – amazed that I’m totally trusted as a reliable and responsible teacher for their young ones. To me, it’s an honor of the highest order.  I’m also in awe of the wondrous hearts and minds of the students I work with. I can’t see into their inner lives, but experience tells me their minds are miracle workers and their hearts have as much goodness as the sky has stars. Again and again, the thoughts of students have shined lights on some of my musty, ramshackle thoughts, and feelings they share from their almost brand new hearts have often made English class a brighter place to be. Truth is, just working with a few dozen young human beings is enough in itself to give me a sense of awe. After all, these kids are unique creations of the universe, the kinds of phenomena that are full of fresh wonders each moment. Their cells, blood, and brains are bright and surprising each second, and I’m privileged to be witness to their miracle-making day after day, September to June.

* * * * *
         Now and then, when I’m in the midst of working with my students, I picture myself as a jeweler observing diamonds under changing lights. I’ve heard that diamonds display astonishing differences in their radiance as they revolve in darkening and brightening light, and sometimes I’m caught off guard by the ever-shifting brightness of my students’ lives. Even their youthful faces, their frowns and grins and expressions of dismay or understanding or exhaustion, can transform second by second during class. Occasionally, like a jeweler among his diamonds, I fall into musingly observing their expressions during a discussion, and am always amazed by the endless alterations. Flashes of comprehension and appreciation can be followed by the dimness of boredom, which can be quickly followed by sparkles of passionate curiosity – and on and on. I sometimes get a little lost in these observations and the discussion temporarily leaves me behind, but who can fault a jeweler for admiring some diamonds?

* * * * *
“A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us, that a higher law than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary, and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.”
         -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Spiritual Laws”
         My dad used to tell me that will power is all that is needed to achieve success, but now, after four decades as a teacher, I actually wish I had less will power, for it sometimes impedes the teaching and learning in my classroom. I am not a church-going person, but, like Emerson, I have the feeling that a far greater power than my paltry will is operating among my students and me. My “painful labors” to be the best teacher I can possibly be seem strangely insignificant when compared to the other far more impressive and immeasurable forces that circulate through my classroom each day. I’m like a tiny swimmer using all my theories and lesson plans and goals and objectives to make progress, but oddly enough, I’m often battling upstream, when the sensible option would be to relax and float where the strong, smooth-flowing currents of learning take my students and me.  Of course, like a serious swimmer, I must train and prepare myself for each day’s work in the classroom, but I must also remember to let the “river” – the universal and ever-present power of learning -- do the major share of the work. It’s a widespread and magnificent river, and no teacher should have the foolishness or audacity to think he can do better than respectfully and gracefully follow where it leads.  To a well-trained and wise swimmer, swimming in even the most formidable currents is “easy, simple, and spontaneous”, and so it should be in English class.

* * * * *

         In the midst of doing some outdoor chores today, I took a moment to stand back and observe the birds at a hanging feeder nearby. It wasn’t much – just a minute or two – but it was enough to bring to mind again the magnificence of the most commonplace occurrences, the day-by-day events that could thrill me if I simply stood back and actually watched now and then. They were just small brown birds stopping for food, so slight and silent they surely go unnoticed by humans for hours and days on end, but today the thought came to me to stop, look, and listen – and I saw a bit of nature’s daily splendor. It made me wish I could remember to stand back a bit more often when I’m teaching. I’m usually so busy being an officious, overly zealous teacher trying my best to meet my own high standards that I rarely pause to ponder what’s right in front of me – a group of young human beings the likes of which have never existed before. Here’s newness and freshness at its finest – kids whose zillions of cells are remade every second, whose thoughts always blossom (or explode) in slightly new ways, and whose next moment, at all times, is a bolt from the blue.  How is it that I can so often teach an entire lesson without recognizing the greatness that sits before me? No doubt someone might say, “Oh come on. They’re just a bunch of ordinary teenagers” – but to me that’s like saying the Grand Canyon is just a valley made of rocks. I suppose there are people who would be bored by the Grand Canyon (or some brown birds pecking seeds), just as there are people who think teaching teenagers would be the height of tedium and triviality. I’ve been to the famous canyon, and I find it astonishing, but no more so – and I’m totally serious – than what I behold when I occasionally stand back and open my eyes in English class. 

* * * * *
         It’s good for me to recall, now and then, that vast amounts of learning take place in my classes without my help. I usually have a fairly self-important and pushy attitude toward teaching, which makes me somewhat like a man who walks through a day’s sunshine and thinks he’s causing all the brightness. My bright students are receiving the lights of learning moment by moment, no matter what I’m saying or doing, and yet it’s so easy to imagine that I’m the source of it all, the central place from which all learning in 9th grade English radiates. It easy to think that no education takes place without my professional assistance, and yet trainloads of new knowledge, of which I am totally unaware, pass through my students’ lives during a given 48-minute class. This realization is good for me, because it relieves me of some of the weighty sense of duty we teachers often lug around. It reminds me that the sea of learning is far vaster than all earth’s oceans put together, and that I am a mere ripple in that sea, a supportive but minuscule stream in the endless currents of schooling. It’s comforting to sit silently in my classroom after school and think about the many useful truths -- hundreds of them, no doubt -- that my students learned today with no assistance from me. Actually, when life seems burdensome and bewildering, I often gain reassurance from simply imagining all the marvelous events that are taking place without my help. While I’m fretting over what steps I can take to heal my seemingly troublesome life, all over the earth hearts are beating, leaves are springing into life, light is falling on flowers, forests are standing just as they should, silence and peace is coming into uneasy lives – and all with absolutely no steps being taken by Mr. Salsich. It’s somehow inspiring to me, this small fact of the grandness and inescapable success of all things. The universe will stride splendidly onward, with or without me – and so will my students.

* * * * *
         Though I am not a Bible reader, I often recall a phrase I heard growing up, something about “the straight and narrow way”, and I’ve sometimes pondered its connection to teaching. Just this morning it came to me, as it often has, that teaching English might be far simpler than I usually make it out to be. Perhaps, I thought, it’s really a fairly straight and narrow path that could be followed with little difficulty by any teacher who turns away from the often overstated complexities and mysteries of the work and simply decides to show students how to write clearly and read perceptively. That’s really what it’s all about – teaching kids to write understandable sentences and read with a strong mind.  Perhaps all the multitudinous theories, techniques, strategies, and approaches to teaching English should be occasionally set aside so we can rub our eyes and see again these two simple but special end products: good writers and good readers.  I don’t mean to suggest that teaching English is easy – just that the work could be done in a more straightforward and uncomplicated manner. There’s a road to be traveled – good reading and writing – and it’s a straight and clearly marked road, provided our minds aren’t lost in pedagogical jargon and theoretical labyrinths. It might be as simple as making sure the students write and read a lot, and steering them back onto the designated road when they start to swerve away. Of course, if I’m traveling a road with my students, then I should obviously stay out front and show the kids how it’s done and where we’re heading.  That means, to my mind, providing models for the students to study and follow. If good writing means using a variety of sentence lengths, then I need to show them how to do it, over and over again as we travel down the road. If good reading means reading slowly and mindfully, then they need to see me doing it day after day so they can follow my lead. Yes, teaching is exhausting and often exasperating work, but it could be a little simpler, a little more clear cut, a little less stressful if I got back on the straight and narrow way.

* * * * *
         I’m continually amazed when I consider the number of thoughts produced in each English class – a vast number, beyond counting or comprehending. The students and I are manufacturing thoughts moment by moment for 48 minutes, which amounts to tens of thousands thoughts in each class. I sometimes picture us sitting amidst a swarm of thoughts, always fresh and brisk, always buzzing among us like news from somewhere far away.  A handful of students and a teacher almost hidden (or protected, perhaps) by thousands and thousands of up-to-the-minute thoughts: it’s an exciting scene to picture! What I often wonder is where do all these thoughts come from?  Maybe 50,000 in each class -- 300,000 each day -- 1,500,000 each week – 54,000,000 each year: Where in the world, or the universe, do they all come from? It’s an impenetrable mystery, since there’s simply no way we could ever isolate the precise origin of a thought (short of employing the useless pseudo-explanation that it originates in the brain). It’s as if thoughts start somewhere but nowhere, inside us but in the far reaches of infinity. Locating a starting point is like trying to find where and when a single breeze began blowing. For me, it just adds to the enchantment of teaching. I sometimes feel like I’m in the midst of charmed kingdom when I’m teaching – a kingdom created and cared for by countless miraculous thoughts from the back of beyond.

* * * * *
         When I’m teaching, it sometimes seems as if I’m wearing a finely pointed headlamp, whereas I might do better using – at least occasionally – a floodlight. With my headlamp approach to teaching, I’m usually zeroed-in on some separate, distinct aspect of my work – perhaps a step in the lesson plan, or the behavior of a particular student, or maybe a small flaw I noticed in something I just said. Much like a miner’s lamp in a dark mine, my narrow beam of attention shifts here and there as I go about my work, lighting up this student or that statement or this problem, but leaving everything else in relative darkness. I’m afraid it’s a hesitant, stumbling way to teach, sort of like feeling my way from one small illuminated spot to another. What’s particularly unfortunate about this style of teaching is that it tends to exaggerate both triumphs and mistakes. When I make a properly supportive and instructive response to a student’s comment, the headlamp’s strong illumination sets my success apart as seeming far more special than it really is, and, conversely, when I blunder in my everyday way, the blunder, in the sharply focused light of my attention, looks more like a complete catastrophe than the commonplace and harmless misstep that it actually is.  I guess I’d like to use a floodlight style of teaching a little more often. If I could pretend that a floodlight was shining on my students and me as we work through an English lesson, I think I might get a truer picture of what’s actually happening. If the light lit up all of my students and me with an even illumination (which is what a floodlight does), then I could see all the successes and mistakes in class in their proper perspective – as just small pieces of a detailed and multifaceted big picture. Plus, if my imaginary floodlight could light up the whole world, and even the sweeping stars and planets, then I could see my small classroom on a country road, with its groups of mainstream teenagers and their grayish, well-tested teacher, as just another interesting place in a vastly interesting universe. Then, the little victories and calamities in a day’s worth of teaching and learning would shine no more brightly than the countless other important but often unnoticed events that happen when kids and a senior citizen come together to help each other get educated.

* * * * *
         To my mind, one of the greatest myths young people have been taught is that they are encircled by countless limitations. It would be impossible to even estimate how many barriers my students see surrounding them. There are physical barriers (“I’m not fast enough  to be a good soccer player”) and mental barriers/emotional barriers (“I’ve been diagnosed as having an attention deficit disorder, and I will have it for the rest of my life”) – and all of these barriers are seen as undeniable and invincible. They are insurmountable, kids are told, and must simply be acknowledged, accepted, and managed. What I find strange, first of all, is that we adults feel qualified to officially proclaim that this or that permanent limitation exists in a child’s life. Who are we, for heaven’s sake, to make such executive proclamations? Where did we ever get the chutzpah, the nerve, perhaps the impudence, to make a young person believe he will never be able to perform some task or reach some goal? Certainly it’s important that we help students identify their weaknesses, but shouldn’t our next step be to help them overcome these weaknesses and thus surmount, to some extent, the barriers? Shouldn’t we be encouraging them to strive instead of settle? Am I being hopelessly old-fashioned in believing that trying a little harder is better than telling yourself, oh well, you’ll never succeed? One of mankind’s greatest discoveries, proven countless times across the centuries, is that limitations are created and cultivated in our minds, not in the real world. Change your thoughts and you can destroy barriers, as Helen Keller, Bill Gates, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Frank, Woody Allen (expelled from New York University Film School), J.K. Rowling (rejected by 12 publishers), and the Beatles (rejected by Decca Recording Company) discovered. Haven’t most of humanity’s major accomplishments happened because certain individuals refused to accept a limitation or bow down to a barrier? It is said that Thomas Edison had to conduct over 2,000 experiments before he got the first incandescent light bulb to work. What if a well-meaning person had said to him, after experiment number 1,999: “Thomas, give it up. Accept your limitations, deal with this failure, and move on”? He probably wouldn’t have listened anyway, because later, when asked how he was able to handle 2,000 failed experiments, he replied, “I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2,000-step process.’” He somehow knew that barriers always give way to a true feeling of ground-breaking freedom. To learners who have a sense of unbounded interior liberty, there are no real barriers, obstacles, barricades, or fences – except those that can be conquered by simply not quitting. Thomas Edison knew that truth, and I hope my students can learn it.

* * * * *
         I just finished watching a classic western called Red River, and, strange as it may seem, it made me wish a new school year started tomorrow.  I was thoroughly inspired by the pioneering spirit of big John Wayne and his Texas ranch hands as they led 10,000 cattle 1,000 miles north to Missouri on one of the first cattle drives in the West. They had no definite idea of an actual trail and no reasonable hope that they would ever arrive at their destination (or even what the exact destination was), and yet they set off with an untamed spirit of buoyancy and bravado. They had little to lose and a life like a long escapade to gain, so perhaps their attitude was, “Hey, why not?” The film inspired me because that’s exactly the attitude I hope to cultivate in my classroom. There’s entirely too much hesitancy and diffidence among my young students, too much desire for undemanding books, safe assignments, and high and easy grades. If my students were in Texas with John Wayne, they would have been terrified to set off on such a dicey and intimidating trip.  They might have asked for an assignment they were more accustomed to, like leading the cattle to a local waterhole. Actually, I shouldn’t be too hard on the students, because I, too, have some of the same spirit – too much tentativeness and timidity, too little inclination to try something brave and big and totally different. The film inspires me to look for new horizons in my teaching and for unmapped trails to take with my students. I need to say, “Hey, why not?” more often, especially when a really rowdy and undisciplined idea for a lesson occurs to me. Sure, the lesson might flop and fail in front of my eyes, but it also might make it all the way to the end of a startling and instructive trail. Why not?

* * * * *
         I have often watched my son body surfing (he’s an expert), and it has occasionally started me thinking about teaching. He seems utterly relaxed as he glides in with the wave, just the way I feel when I’m doing my best teaching. He’s not struggling with the surf, but simply allowing it to do its work – simply giving in, you might say, to the drive and direction of the wave, and similarly, when good things are happening in my classroom, I often feel like I’m allowing them to happen rather than making them happen.  In a sense, we’re both going along for the ride – my son on waves and I on the never-ending energies of education. Of course, Matt has to be ready for constant surprises in the surf, as do I in my classroom of pulsating and restive teenagers. There’s no possible way to predict what the measureless ocean will send my son as he waits for a wave, just as there’s no way to correctly foretell how fortunes will fare during a 48-minute English class.  He and I both have to be wise and flexible enough to shift, dip, and bend so as to bring ourselves in line with the powers confronting us – freewheeling surf and high-spirited students.  

* * * * *
         There are lucky times in my teaching life when I’m able, so to speak, to sit in the audience and enjoy the show. Usually I’m much too involved as the main character in the drama of “Mr. Salsich the English Teacher”, but now and then I’m able to get myself out of the drama and off the stage. I’m still teaching, perhaps even standing in front of the students and guiding the activity, but in my mind I’m sitting in the audience, observing with attentiveness this absorbing show.  It’s a tragicomedy full of sometimes spellbinding teacher stunts, distinguished successes, and miserable failures. As I watch Mr. Salsich the teacher in action, I alternately laugh, sigh, shout approval, and sob. It’s an odd trick, to be able to perform as the teacher and at the same time observe the performance, but I find it an essential one. Far too often I get so completely caught up in the mesmerizing stage show called “9th Grade English” that I forget that it’s only a show and I’m only playing a part. It’s so easy to take myself way too seriously as a teacher – to begin believing that what I do during 3rd period on Wednesday will have life-changing effects on the children, when the truth is that my classes are no more important than the sunrise this morning or the meatloaf I made last night. My English classes are shows (sometimes spectacles, occasionally even extravaganzas) -- not too different than sunrises, making meatloaf, my lungs lifting and falling, or the stars shining their lights across the sky.  My classes come each day and then they go, and they’re no more special than other things that come and go, like breezes and bubbles on water. To be honest, I find my classes to be fascinating shows, both in the preparation and in the performance, but they are only shows. They change student lives no more then their breathing does, or how their parents hug them, or what movies they see. Does this make me feel less valuable as a teacher? Not at all, and, truth is, actually more valuable -- as valuable as stars overhead or a breath of fresh air or a good hug.

* * * * *
         It occurs to me every so often that the dignified atmosphere I insist on in my classes can, in some ways, be compared to what you might see at a classical orchestra concert. First of all, there’s a hush in the concert hall as the musicians silently enter, as though something extraordinary is about to occur, and I insist that students enter my classroom in a similarly dignified kind of stillness. Both the orchestra and my students are expected to present distinguished performances, and therefore they should both set a suitably decorous mood beforehand. I wouldn’t expect musicians to enter the concert hall conversing and jostling, and neither do I expect it from my students. I also recall, now, that an orchestra doesn’t begin its concert before taking a moment to make sure their instruments are in proper tune, and perhaps we need to do something similar in English class. Perhaps we should use the first two or three minutes to “prepare” ourselves to take part in distinguished, scholarly discussions and activities. A few moments of complete silence at their places might be fitting – a little time to lay a foundation for studious work by settling thoughts and allowing the bewilderment of their young lives to clear away.  If all of this sounds like I want my classes to be grimly solemn – not at all. I always hope for some cheerful laughter during class – the joviality of junior scholars enjoying their academic labors – but one of the best kinds of cheerfulness, to me, arises from doing dignified work in a stylish way. Like musicians in an orchestra, we can have great fun while we’re “performing”, and we can do it best by behaving in an honorably decorous manner.

* * * * *
         I often forget how I ended up getting lucky enough to teach English to teenagers for 45 years – and I shouldn’t, because it’s an astonishing story. Truth is, a zillion pieces had to fall into just the right places to enable me to find myself in a small school in St. Louis in 1965, and a zillion more pieces have fallen into place in the years since then. Now I do my labor of love in another small school in southeastern Connecticut, and just how I got here is still a marvelous mystery to me. Stars shifted, possibilities rose up from nowhere, winds of chance and good fortune followed me here and there, and lo, I find myself still surrounded by captivating kids for nine months of the year.  Are the kids always well behaved? Of course not, and neither, you might say, are stars or winds or snowstorms or sunshine, but that doesn’t make them any less miraculous. I live an enchanting life as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget it, nor how the universe somehow was good enough to allow me this life of learning and teaching. Some might say I earned it by hard work in school, dedication to my job, etc., but to me it’s way more complicated than that. The fact that I’ve had four decades of rewarding work and millions of other people haven’t remains an impenetrable mystery to me, as profound as the mystery of where exactly the breeze that just blew by me came from.     

* * * * *

         Pronouns can be helpful words (there’s a bunch in this paragraph) but I often wish I could use the first person singular a little less when I’m thinking about teaching. Of course, they’re a convenience in talking and writing, but when I’m thinking about the nature of the work I do with my young students, the use of those pronouns suggests that I’m thinking about teaching in a way that I just don’t like. It suggests an overly personal approach to the work, as though the person called “I” is terribly important – more important, it sometimes seems, than the teaching and learning that happens in the room.  With this first-person-singular attitude, it’s “my” classroom and “my” students. The lesson plans are “my” plans, as though I somehow own the ideas in the plans, and when things go well, it’s often what “I” accomplished as a teacher instead of what the kids accomplished as students. I realize I may be playing semantics here, but still, I find my constant use of these first person pronouns a plague in my thinking about teaching. Why does it have to be “my” classroom instead of just “the” classroom – a place where the learning is not owned and engineered by any one person but is shared by all? And why, for heaven’s sake, are they “my” students, implying that I have some strange type of ownership of them. They are simply students, not owned by anyone except their own freewheeling strength of mind. And “my” lesson plans? Don’t I borrow all of my ideas – yes, all of them – from outside sources, including colleagues, articles, books, and on-line discussions? I may remake them a bit, but they are still rightfully “owned” by the countless hidden sources from which they sprang. Since when are they “mine” and not simply shared ideas found at the infinite fountain of teaching know-how?  Of course, I do play a significant part in the learning that occurs among my students, but only in the way a passing breeze plays a part in the general wind that’s blowing across my yard as I type. Imagine a breeze announcing, “This wind is my wind and all the breezes in it are mine.” It might actually make an interesting children’s story, and the moral would be that self-importance is a foolish path to follow. All breezes are equally important as they work with the larger winds of the world, and the gray and slightly stooped teacher and his students in Room 2 are equally important as they stir up some English education together.

* * * * *
         As I was sitting on the patio this morning close to a bird feeder, a cardinal came floating across the yard toward the feeder and then veered away, as if it saw me and was wary – and it reminded me of what seems to happen in English class now and then. My teenage students are wary folks -- especially, perhaps, because their teacher is a silvery and seasoned 68, a guy with more furrows in his face than hair on his head. They often stare at me as though they’re seeing something from a distant historical age. When they approach my desk, they’re usually hesitant and silent, coming slowly forward with the deference (and wariness) they might show to a frail grandfather. It happens that as I’ve been writing this, the cardinal has approached the feeder a few more times, but each time has swerved off to the distant trees, as if he can’t quite find the courage to get so close to the old fellow below the feeder. I hope he finally is fearless enough to come for his food, and I hope my young students, too, can learn to live comfortably in the classroom with their elderly teacher. For me, it’s a question of being patient – just sitting at my desk (or on the patio) and good-naturedly waiting for birds and kids to trust a little more.