Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Darwin, Jane Austen, & my students ~

I love science. And of course Darwin — like Da Vinci, like Einstein, like Copernicus — dominates it. Yesterday was his birthday (sorry about the tardy Congrats!, Mr. Darwin). So here is a bit of Darwin reflection ~ and bear with me: I promise it has to do w/ beginner’s heart…:)

One semester — and one only — I tried to teach Darwin in a lit class. We do a lot of nonfiction in literature (Benjamin Franklin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Scott Momaday, just to name a few), looking at figures w/ long-term literary impact. Several of my students (and this was an honours class) flat refused to read Darwin. Nope, they told me. He’s … well, Darwin. And against their religion(s).

Just to read him? I asked, incredulous. You can’t even READ him, to see what he said in his own words? And to a student, they shook their heads. I promise I’m not exaggerating, nor am I over-stating their adamant refusals. No negotiating — Darwin may as well be the anti-Christ.

Because this had never happened to me before, and because I don’t believe in putting students on the spot, I allowed them to read something else. But I’ve never forgotten that class. Nor the quiet, back-door responses of other students to this small cadre of their very vocal and conservatively religious colleagues. One told me she felt totally disdained by the students in the class, because she was an atheist. Another told me that he felt his religion — Judaism — was both maligned and dismissed by the same students.

I have no facile comments or final conclusions about this class. I don’t understand it now much better than I didn’t then, if that makes sense. It’s always been incomprehensible to me that any literature is ‘forbidden.’ I did ask my students why they had been forbidden to read Darwin. They hadn’t been expressly ‘forbidden,’ they assured me. But to a person, they said that Darwin was evil, and they were ‘discouraged from’ reading his work. After all, he denied the divine plan.

But here’s what I wonder: how can mere human beings discern the divine plan — always given that there is one…? If something there is that created the spark that became today, the fragrance of Hao Ya tea, the crisp winter cold, the queue of birds lining up at the bird bath we just unfroze, how can I, addled mortal that I am, comprehend that? And what is there about ‘faith’ that is threatened by knowledge?

My students were not interested in discussing this much at all. I did ask if they followed the Old Testament, and the Laws of Leviticus. This is what hurt my Jewish student — the Darwin-deniers were appalled at the idea. But it’s the Old Testament –  Genesis et al — that carry the Young Earth creation myth. And to be a Young Earther means you also deny the following scientific fields, as I’ve touched on elsewhere: physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, molecular biology, genomics, linguistics, anthropology, archaelogy, climatology, and dendochronology. If a scant 1/2 of American believe in the Young Earth philosophy, no wonder we don’t have many scientists!

So, Darwin, what do you have to say about this? Baptised Anglican, raised in the Unitarian church, you studied to be Christian clergy yourself. And you like a happy ending, it appears.  So this poem by Wislawa Szymborska made me happy. Especially when I think of Darwin possibly reading Austen, one of my all-time favourites: “the lovers reunited, the families reconciled.” It’s called: ‘Consolation.’

I’d like a happy ending too. But I’m not sure what it would be, or how my beginner’s heart — which would like very much to understand why science is seen as threatening faith — can help it come about. Any suggestions?

the holy alchemy of teaching ~

I often tackle a new discipline — or learning more about something I know only superficially — by offering to teach it. Don’t cringe: you’re not in any of my classes :). And it makes me, I’d argue, a far better teacher. My enthusiasm is new; my passion still full-hearted. But it also makes me nervous.

Last night was the first evening of a new class I’m teaching. As we shared our names, why we were in that moment together, beginning a new project, I thought — not for the first time — what a holy endeavour teaching is. That the relationship which develops in a healthy classroom is (like all religions) based on faith, on trust. Teacher and student in fluid movement — the way currents inform each other in a larger body of water. Learning a kind of ocean…

It’s transformative, teaching. Something we don’t tell outsiders much — sounds like cult stuff, doesn’t it? :) Students know that learning is transformative, and that a teacher can wield enormous power, for good or evil. But it takes teaching, day in/day out, to transform the teacher. Within the classroom, I’m somehow re-created, each hour, each class session. Some alchemical process transmutes me, turns my leaden nature into something that, while not gold, is infinitely closer to that spiritual state the alchemists sought.

Alchemy too was a spiritual belief, often entertwined w/ religion, and certainly part of the tradition of seeking.The idea of the philosopher’s stone was part of it, but so was the belief that following the process changed the believer, transforming his spirit (it was all ‘his’ back then :)) into a purer state — spiritual gold.

Teaching is like that. Each class, I walk through the door knowing I will learn far more than my students. The evening class I teach is for ‘mature’ adults — meaning about 1/2 the class is even older than I am. I learn from them how I might be a better grandparent, how to write, how listen and how to learn. And I re-learn, nightly, how lucky I am to be a teacher.

The afternoon class I teach is an entirely different demographic: more diverse both culturally and chronologically, although no one is a lot older than my elder son. I learn without even trying — I can’t help but learn. Preparing a day’s lesson plan, researching new information on a topic, reading a student’s work, trying to figure out how what a student thinks can be articulated, made tangible in words… All of that is learning. Today I learned — once again — how the process of k-12 education, as it stands today, leaves so many of our gifted students woefully insecure about their own abilities, and deeply mistrustful of unstructured learning. ‘Play’ — such a critical element of learning at all ages — is a foreign concept to my students. At least within the academic arena.

All of this — at least for me, and for the many teachers whom I love and follow — is a kind of faith. A faith in the capacity of the human heart to expand with learning. A trust that what I know will somehow be useful to the learning trajectories of these wonderful people in my classes. Belief that one person can make a difference.

It’s also spiritual practice, strengthening my beginner’s heart. the process of teaching — blogging, poetry, journaling, whatever — is teaching me how to learn. I have to learn more about the topics, obviously. But I’m learning so much more. Like how to love. I didn’t realise when I took up teaching that it was a kind of Buddhist practice, but there it is. The holy alchemical practice of teaching. Who knew…

the price of reflection ~

I’m not so good at taking my own advice, she said,

but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s right.

Guilt. That’s what 5 minutes of reflection costs. Well, maybe that’s the price of temper… And the reflection is just… maturity? Buddhist empathy? Naaw… It’s guilt. I recognise it from childhood.

Here’s the deal: I write almost daily about learning beginner’s heart. About learning how to be more compassionate, more reflective. More alive within the moment. But sometimes, being alive in the moment means I blow. Up, to be precise. At … whatever.

Someone I love is sick. And thus cranky, as we’re wont to be when we don’t feel well. And both sick & cranky for several weeks. Now, we need to detour here to my lack of patience. It is NOT one of my strengths. I can cook. I can speak French. I actually have an ear for music and language. And I can write. But ask me for patience and I turn my spiritual pockets inside out, empty.

So I blew up. At this poor sick person, nursing a fever, a raging sinus infection, and a bad headache, to boot. YELLED. LOUDLY. Enough to raise if not the dead, at least any nearby zombies.

I can’t take that back. And within a matter of an hour or so I cooled off (I was pretty hot). And then? Well, beginner’s heart kicked in. And I felt terrible. Guilty. Like a total fraud. And a loud, hot-tempered one, at that!

It took me all day to day to forgive myself. Not the poor sickie. Myself. Far harder, isn’t it? But just as necessary. Because I don’t have to live w/ anyone else. Just me, on the inside of me. And that’s why beginner’s heart is so important. So we can practice it ~ inside out.

the lives of students ~

My students share their lives — with me, with each other. We have a class listserv, which they’re required to post to several times weekly. It builds community — there’s lots of research on classroom community and its benefits — but it also keeps me awake nights…

There’s the young man who shared his suicidal tendencies. As someone who has lived through a former much-loved student’s suicide, this is the hardest. How can you tell them it gets better so that they will believe you? He battles depression — so crippling for anyone, but especially devastating when you’re young, and everyone else seems to be managing fine.

Then there’s the young woman whose mother tells her what a loser she is. Weekly. Sometimes daily. A smart, funny, cute young woman who writes amazing words. This one’s mother I want to just smack w/ a cast-iron pan. What is wrong  w/ this woman??

And there’s the young woman struggling w/ disease, the young man who worries he will become his alcoholic father, the young men & women whose parents are hyper-critical, emotionally distant. This all comes out over the course of a semester: in their postings, in their essays, in classroom discussion. And it’s never easier to face…

In every class, each semester, there are stories from ordinary lives affected deeply by the thoughtless words of others. Worse yet, brilliant lives darkened by the black clouds of family and friends who should be outlawed to some place where they can’t hurt my students. Sometimes I wish I could email a mother, a father, a sister or aunt, the online posting of a devasted 19- or 20-year-old. I wish I could, for a moment, let them see these amazing people — my students — the way I do.

See the quiet boy in the back of the room? The one you told he’d always be no one? He writes beautifully — amazing pieces that explore social issues, incorporate his thoughts with hard research. And that lovely girl you told she’s fat? The size 8, maybe? She’s wasting away — literally & figuratively — because she thinks you don’t love her.

We say we love our children. But we don’t always act it. Today? Tell the children in your life how much you love them. Remind that 20-year-old daughter she’s still your princess. She wants to be. And hug the young man your son has grown into as if he was still 6 years old. Inside, he still is.  I can’t fix things for my students. I wish I could. But you can. Treat them as if they’re very fragile. In my class, you can tell they are…

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