In the press and rush of planning, grading, lecturing, it becomes easy to think that the end of teaching is to plan, to grade, to lecture—and so to confuse the means of teaching with its ends: the getting of wisdom, the forming of virtue, the knowing of God, and the making of friends.
If anything defined my childhood summers, it was The Play.
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.
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.
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.
The proverbial imagination pictures Wisdom as a noble lady who prepares a feast and invites any who would come: “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who lacks sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave our simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight’” (Proverbs 9:1-6).