Editor’s note: Listen to Stephen Valentine narrate his story (9 minutes, 11 seconds).
Last summer, when my family’s quarantine was starting to resemble a tub filled with standing water, my daughter and I cut up magazines and pasted images onto a posterboard that she never unrolled during her fifth-grade spring.
“Collages,” she said, as if recalling a foggy dream, and then, “Collages! We’re making collages!”
I couldn’t tell if ours were any good. Each time I stopped to consider the value of the endeavor, I lost my way. A shade kept coming down on my brain.
I watched my daughter who, at the time, had never received a grade in school. She glued an eye onto a building onto a champagne flute. She taped speech text to a mountain and then shaved down a clock to give the mountain a mouth. “Speaking takes time,” she said and then said nothing for long stretches until sharply laughing at some deliciously unpredictable combination.
I learned from her to cut quickly and trash nothing. To yank that shade down hard and then let it fling up and harrumph around and around itself.
At school, later that summer, we invited the faculty back and, first thing, gave them time to walk the building and grounds. To tour slowly spaces left abruptly last March. To look at desks and hallways and classrooms overlaid with plexiglass and directional arrows, flanked with disinfecting wipes and filtration systems.
Anyone over the years who had hoped — articulately or inarticulately — that we could slow down, that we could unwind our relentless independent school hustle, would have winced at such ironic wish fulfillment. This wasn’t . . . quite . . . what we meant. And yet. . .
Hours after the tour, I hosted a demo class for a group of teachers new to our school. I could have, should have, hosted a demo for the entire faculty; we were all brand new to hybrid teaching and what it would ask us to plug in, pay attention to, design, dream, and give. Oh, and we were all new to how it would ask us to fail.
Every teacher knows failure. It’s why we all — even the calmest of pros — have teaching dreams in late summer. It’s why the plots of those dreams usually turn on something forgotten — a lesson or handout or pants. We can abide familiar failure as part of the gig; we have all shared or heard these dreams over in-service coffee, that great shaking-off of nerves. What was hard about conceiving of hybrid teaching, safety aside, was that we couldn’t shake or even share the sense that we would fail in completely novel ways, that we would stack new humility over the old humility like bruises on a bruise.
I planned for the demo class with more effort than I had planned any class, any thing, in years. I counted minutes and thought about the way I would transition between topics or activities. I thought, especially, about attention and how I would channel it. Then, when the entire edifice was as perfect as I could make it, I tore it down. What good would I be to anyone if I made this look easy, if I hid my preparation in polish or ease?
With fewer students in school each day, school grew quiet in the way a forest is quiet.
Then a branch snaps. If you’re paying attention, not ruffling anything to begin with, that sound is big enough to fill your entire ear. It takes up more space than a hurricane would . . . or the same small breach in a school building packed to capacity.
Walking the halls, early September, I found a senior in one of the ninth-grade Biology rooms. He wasn’t always the most engaged student and had never been called fluent in the ways of school.
“I don’t even really know how I got here,” he said, smiling shyly at the double meaning. “This classroom, I mean. I took this class as a freshman. Just felt like hanging out in here for a little while and thinking about that class. I didn’t do well in it, but the labs were fun.”
Mid-October, while taking temperatures to admit students into the building, I talked with a student I’d known for years. She kind of hung around the way young people sometimes do and soon she was talking fast about her dream, her vision for her life. “I want to work on a farm. I’m doing this. I’m going to college to study farming.”
I had always seen her in a different way, thinking she might study English, maybe teach, so my mind spun two ways at once: clockwise joy at seeing more of someone crossed with counterclockwise concern that my imagination, its unspooling narrative, had shortened my seeing in the first place.
November, after the last, semi-confused student left the room and the Google Meet, I knew that we had been close to the most basic — and important — lesson that the author had set before us. We were about a class away from a great unknowing.
As a fiction (about fiction) that wants to encourage us to see the real world differently, more equitably, with less bias, with less reliance on shortcut-stereotype thinking, our text’s first achievement was to dismantle categories and judgments. To shake up the ways we reduce people to types. It wanted to reinvigorate one of the most important tools we have for understanding, and ultimately caring for, one another: curiosity. My job, I had learned just recently for the hundredth time, was to let it.
Enduring understanding: the bravery to bathe in ambiguity just a little bit longer, to hold it even and especially when others might try to harm it by solving it.
Ask a writer and she’ll tell you that showing is more powerful than telling. I feel the same way about teaching. As a class, as a group, to acquire knowledge and skills and understandings, we have to pass through experiences together, and then think about or discuss or mark that passage.
I can’t tell you, I have to show you. Better yet, I have to walk beside you.
Let’s try it:
When I walk into the classroom with my students and you, and plug my laptop into the HDMI cable and the microphone and then the remote participants join us, I am as prepared as I have ever been. But my first words come out as a strange screech. I am back at the New Jersey boardwalk on the tilt-a-whirl right at the lurching kickstart. Knowing what the ride will do to me, to my stomach, I mash at the buttons on my laptop. Stop-stop-stop.
You have seen this routine before, and I’m not sure if you are resigned or frustrated. I mash more, and faster.
But the sound is symphony not solo, emanating from the combination of several unmuted sources and amplified by speakers overhearing speakers and belting sound back.
“What is this?” I think. “Where have I heard this before?”
And then it comes to me. This is the sound of standing water being sucked down a drain. I hold my nose with one hand, my daughter’s cast-off paste stick with the other . . . and go with it. Are you still beside me?
- “A shade kept coming down on my brain” comes from this extraordinary interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer: https://believermag.com/an-interview-with-robin-wall-kimmerer.
- “Speaking takes time” is an insight I first picked up from Jerome Ellis, This American Life 713: Made to Be Broken: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/713/transcript. When my daughter said it, I heard it clearly because I had heard it before.
- The plan for the school tour came from Rachel Cusk’s Outline, and in particular, this quotation: “[The] translator says that a sentence is born into this world neither good nor bad, and that to establish its character is a question of the subtlest possible adjustments, a process of intuition to which exaggeration and force are fatal. Those lines concerned the art of writing, but . . . they applied just as much to the art of living.”
- The text described in Part 3 is Interior Chinatown.
- Most ideas started, in one way or another, on my digital scratch pad: Refreshing Wednesday (www.refreshingwednesday.com).