When the last student closed my classroom door after the final period on the concluding day of the school year this past May, and I was left in the room alone with the memories of all the people and conversations that had filled it for the past ten months, I knelt in the middle of the untidy tables and chairs, and felt overwhelmed by two things: my sins and God’s grace.
It is nearly Christmas. Has any drama of history stirred as much music and poetry, art and imagination, as the stable-birth we celebrate this day? The ancient world could never stop chanting of the battles of Troy; but it is the Incarnation that has filled the mouths and hands of artists ever since Christ’s birth. Of all this abundance, Benjamin Britten’s “This Little Babe” occupies a mere minute-and-a-half. Yet in that breath of time, it offers musical and poetic metaphors of the Nativity that press listeners to wonder and worship at the paradoxes of the Incarnation.
We had been practicing the common topics of rhetoric for several weeks when one of the students approached me after class, brow furrowed. “Miss Brigham,” he confided, “these things are messing with me.”
(My teacher’s heart rejoiced within me. If “things messing with me” means assumptions and desires being displaced, upended, rearranged, then surely this is an excellent—albeit colloquial—definition of learning itself.)
It is the day after Thanksgiving, and a few days till Advent. Over the next few weeks, all our learning and living will take place in the context of bustle and anticipation, joy and solemnity, fasting and feasting. This merits some reflection.
Most days we trip along doing more or less the same thing, trying to be more or less virtuous, hoping, by nightfall, to be more or less happy. The church calendar names these days “Ordinary Time,” and they are lovely; only dulled senses and a blunted soul find pattern uncreative and predictability boring.
Caught in the school year’s relentless current, and bracing against the looming rapids of holidays and vacation, teachers at this time of the year can drift so easily into the eddy of covering curriculum and marching through plans. But we must remember that it’s students, not books, we are really teaching, and that the most treasured classroom moments often come when we defer the question or assignment we’ve set before them to draw out the confusions and complaints they are whispering among them.
A maze of mismatched tables and chairs hosts a dozen simultaneous conversations. Some folks hunch forward, both elbows on the table, in fervent discussion; others lean back in the chairs, the better to illustrate their talk with expansive gesturing. On the tabletops, in hands, and (every now and again) spilled out onto the floor are cups of strong brown brew, wafting their steam and scent throughout the coffeehouse. And wedged in the corner, content and well-caffeinated, some musicians are plucking and strumming and crooning away.
A few weeks back, I sat in the window seat of a Southwest plane, watching the bendy river and broad marshes of my hometown melt into the brown patchwork fields of the Midwest. From ten thousand feet, these fields are not lovely. Their harsh lines and crazy angles, outlined with straggling hedges, seem to flatten whatever dimensions the land originally possessed—the created grace of hills and woods and streams smashed beneath the boundary lines and irrigation systems of profitable agriculture.
Which is more formative for our students: what we teach, or how we teach?
Centuries before Bunyan’s Pilgrim was trekking towards the Celestial City, Chaucer’s motley crew were wending their way to Canterbury. Both stories draw on a premonition that’s as old as Abraham and as fresh as Kerouac—an intimation, undying through the ages, that life is a journey towards, or in search of, the holy.
I’ve lived along the Atlantic long enough to think this week’s hurricane was mild, gentle even, at least in my neighborhood. It ruffled the trees, swirled the clouds, churned the river like a fine butter—but not much more than that. We sat calmly inside as the circling clouds gave the sun the effect of a light bulb about to burst . . . on again, off again, rain, sunshine, rainshine.