Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Silence Speakers

“I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.” — H. D. Thoreau

I dreamt silence is another language, and those who speak it read the current of emotions in people’s faces.  Without words, they cannot describe, cannot explain, cannot label or characterize or color.  Everything is itself.  Each moment flees, dives into time’s stream, and—swept to some dim, imagined place—disappears.

Silence speakers have mostly now.

They do imagine, and wordless colors, shapes, textures, and scents roam their minds like giants.  Memory hasn’t been revised for fewer dimensions but keeps its creation with it until time stretches details thin.  Then the giants vanish.  No book can hold memory because there are no books, only the rich, recalled oil of flowers, foods, and lovers seeping away.

Silence speakers lie by disguise.  Truths they withhold lay just below the surface, a deeper current they keep others from seeing.  They can mislead by showing nothing, and they can mislead deliberately, but they cannot make their listener think something false.  Listeners believe what they see is true.  They have only that choice.

In my dream, silence speakers radiate empathy.  They read each other so closely they are each other, undifferentiated and whole.  They can’t construct anything to divide them, no walls of words, no mansions of thought, and no contracts of abstractions.  They can’t plan.  They can’t build.  They can’t preserve.  They create no monuments to themselves but live like infants roaming in open time.

I woke with envy.  I wonder if doubt is made of words.  In the first rays of consciousness, I shared some space with the silence speakers and felt relief… at least, until the urge to write them down took hold.

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A True Measure

I’m a spoiled teacher.  Most of my students commit to education and want to do well.  Most work hard.  They desire what schooling can bring them and generally treat me with respect.  Some offer me deference that makes me feel undeserving.  A teacher could not ask for better students.

Still, some are better than others.

The best are not the most talented.  I teach many students who—by any measure available—are much more intelligent than I am.  Some of them read, write, reason, and solve at speeds unfathomable to me and, though they don’t know everything yet, I sometimes think that, with enough will, they might.  They ask questions that occurred to me much later in life, and, when I imagine my high school self sitting in the same classroom with them, I feel an idiot.  How is it that I am teaching them?

But the brightest are not always the best.  For some, school is a kind of game, and they direct their intelligence toward making A’s, which—I hope I don’t need to say—is not always the same as learning.  Their motives are extrinsic.  They want a grade or they want a college or they want ratification, approval, renown, or status.  They play students, some so intently it appears they wish to fool themselves.  A few make that magic transformation, but most don’t.  Their curiosity is unreliable.  School is job that, try as they might, they just don’t enjoy.

The biggest difference isn’t ability but attitude. One kind of mind writes essays that are skilled and correct.  The other infuses each sentence with an infectious spirit.  One kind looks for relief, another looks for amusement.  One bores easily—its sails droop at the least lull.  Others balloon even when the only wind is one the sailor provides.  One looks for angles, unfenced pages to cut across, the other dawdles, wandering with little path at all.

It isn’t always obvious which is which—some students may be curious in another class or in another month or in another year—but the very best students look for an excuse to engage.  They are slow to reject any book or any subject, and, though they might hesitate in the face of an assignment, they resist in the interest of doing something more attuned to their curiosities.  They don’t always develop economy of effort—I wish for their sake they did—but, when they do learn to study efficiently, it’s to accomplish more, not to receive equal credit for less effort.  Avoiding labor is never their desire.  As George Iles once said, “Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student.”  My best students are always moving on, never finishing and never wanting to.

Please don’t misunderstand.  These thoughts are not a lament.  I’m grateful to work with so many diligent students, whatever their present motives, but I sometimes wish I could reward them for their curiosity instead of their “scholastic achievement.”  To me, only the desire to learn matters.  Having that, a student is bound to gain knowledge, understanding, skill, wisdom.  Without sincere interest, no sustainable learning occurs.

I wish that, back in the early 20th century when Alfred Binet developed his test for intelligence, he had come up with a method of measuring curiosity instead.  Then I might tell my students where they really stand.

And I might be a more spoiled teacher still.

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The Known Universe

I remember first communion lessons as vaguely creepy.  Yet, as Father Elgin described Christ at the table, imagination bested me—bread the weight of body, viscous wine, and the strange smell of airborne electricity blossoming at the moment of Jesus’ transformation.  My thoughts settled into deeper and deeper possibilities and, as precipitous as my thinking became, something shadowy still lay below.

Father Elgin taught me the world’s invisible order. Everything solid was mysterious (and vice versa) because, if a man might be made bread and eaten, then strangeness always accompanied me.  Sitting in a pew beside a stained glass window, I’d shift to see the church yard through different colors—red, blue, yellow, Mars, Venus, Jupiter—each fresh world as there as anything I knew.  At every moment, entirely other universes existed.  My mind could travel anywhere.

Some secret I had yet to learn might bring discovery.

But thinking isn’t the same thrill ride now.  The questions that sent me spiraling—“What was before God?” and “Where is Christ right now?”—erode with use.  They become silly, more fetish than sensation.  We can only prod ourselves so many times before poking our imaginations is habitual, familiar, forgotten.

I miss mystery and wish deep questions still stirred me.  Father Elgin wanted to awaken amazement in us and did.  Now I’m jaded and swing between thinking only simple minds can sustain wonder and envying simpler minds.  Along the way, I’ve tried to convince myself I might reach enlightenment through the alchemy of study, soupy mysticism, or chemical spurs.  Nothing worked long.

Other people seem to find astonishment in science—photos crowded with galaxies or lenses focused so tight they threaten to penetrate the skin of atoms—but in science every “Wow” is knowledge.  It promises to make order visible, not to suggest something unseen or unknowable.  It tells us we will eventually learn it all, not that the bottom has no bottom or that time can’t reconcile with itself.  Science defines as it explains.

I’m not at all religious and resist the plot of every God story.  Though I enjoy them as tales, they defy belief.  I might will my six-year-old’s wonder back if I could but, as Anne Sexton said, “Need is not quite belief.”  I wish it were.  The absence of Father Elgin’s absolute and endlessly unaccountable mysteries impoverishes modern life.  The miraculous was once the spark of being in the world and kept us awake.  But what now?

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Page 82

In years past, I’ve asked students to write page 82 of their autobiography.  At a loss for something to write today, I decided to take up the assignment myself…

easy to call that time comfortable, but I’m sure I don’t remember accurately. I don’t recall much doubt, at least not the kind that accompanies my actions now.  If someone asked me to draw a figure for a pep-rally poster or sing a solo at a choir concert or write something for the school newspaper, I did it with little apprehension, certain people would praise my courage if not my talent or intelligence.  When friends said they were bad writers or bad at math, I said “Me too,” but only in solidarity.  I could study enough to ace any test.  No subject seemed unattainable.  Failure was odd enough to seem unlikely.

You can’t trace a changed perspective to a single moment, but one stands out.  As a junior, I’d gone out with the same girl all year—one of the seniors, a cheerleader at our school, a redhead and the twin of another cheerleader.  That first year I was the new kid at school, and attracting the attention of such a prominent beauty instantly ratified my social standing.  I didn’t think in those terms, though.  She was my first love, the first person to hear the deeper speech beneath my idle conversation, to sense the soft tremors of my shifting moods.  We didn’t need to speak much, though we spoke all the time, and some part of our communication was sexual, moving toward but never reaching the complete deed.  No one touched in my family—I can’t remember embracing my father or mother between ten and twenty-four—so our experimentation seemed electric, more potent than any stimulant.

But she went away to college the next year, leaving me behind in our high school feeling strange again, out of context again.  We must have decided what to do with us but I don’t know that. Did I question our continuing as we had?  Before she left, we may have looked at calendars marked with when she’d be home from college and when I might visit.  Maybe she was sure absence would make us fonder. I remember feeling sure.

In October, I arranged to stay with another friend on campus, but my girlfriend planned to have me visit her dorm room.  I didn’t realize her roommate would be gone or that such a consequential moment was in the offing.  For all our experimentation, nothing so consequential had happened.  I waited for her to tell me at each next step.  At least, I think I did.  Something else held me back, the gap between thought and feeling I live with every day now.

When I arrived, we kissed as if we’d just seen one another, held hands as we walked to dinner, caught up on news in torrents of conversation.  All of it felt a little like a preamble, but I wonder if I knew for what.  My clothes sat in a suitcase in my friend’s room, and when we landed back at her dorm, I felt agitated.  Because my memory is imperfect I can’t be sure if my affection cooled, if curiosity about a pretty English classmate struck, or if buddies’ skepticism about our long-distance relationship rubbed off.  But no impediment or reluctance stands out prior to the moment we’d been approaching for a year.

Nothing happened.  We started kissing and playing around as we always had, but when she invited me to continue, I didn’t.  Something seemed wrong to me, and what had made us so good—the certainty of our magnetic, nonverbal connection—proved no help.  Before then, for us, words amplified emotion, affection.  They were no help then.  My explanation must have appeared to materialize from a parallel, unvisited universe.  I couldn’t, still can’t, say exactly what I thought or why, though I’m sure I tried.  No confession to explain my reluctance, no new way to feel about her, no ready rational or emotional justification, I couldn’t come near describing my doubt.

That memory is a well-worn by returning to it. It represents dawn for me, a…

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