Beginner's Heart

You all who read this blog may well be tired of hearing about my wonderful students. So you may want to get up and go get a cup of tea; come back in a few paragraphs. Because this is another awed look at the fact that I am paid to learn from the best teachers in the world: students.

Full disclosure: my students are particularly amazing. Seriously. Any teacher worth the 60+ hours we put in weekly (minimum) will tell you the same thing: you stay in teaching despite the long hours, the low wages, the BS federal mandates, the even worse state programs. And the ‘despite’ is students. Because, as my friend Ben says, every day you learn something.

Sometimes it’s as trivial as a new piece of urban vernacular (slang to you non-English majors). I remember the face-reddening day when I realised that ‘hooked up’ now meant more than what happened when you put the trailer hitch on the boat trailer. Some days it’s slightly more significant: a students sends you her flarf poem, an aesthetic movement you’d forgotten existed (because often it’s pretty bad — hers is not, thankfully).

And every so often, one day is the last day in a silent series of learning, when a seedling thought blossoms into something wonderful, a kind of epiphany. The French have a word for it: éclaircissement. It’s lovely, because it has the context of lightening striking, of enlightenment and the clearing of obscurity all in one word. That’s what happens in my classes.

I spent the weekend grading. Every teacher’s least favourite activity. I tell my students: I’d teach for free. You pay me to grade. I was reading semester portfolios. And in a class of 17 students, I sent out at least 7 (maybe more, a scant 1/2 of the class, note) personal notes. You forgot this. Did you mean to do this? Where is this? Would you like to bring this to class tomorrow? It happens every semester, but never before in such large numbers.

This has been an unusually communal class. Community built quickly, and flows strong. The class had a party the day I was in Chicago, complete w/ food and youtube video. They sent me a copy :). Note: most classes wouldn’t have even showed up!

So it’s already an unusual class, and then comes yesterday…I have to figure out a real assignment — not simply ‘extra-credit points’ — that will allow them to earn grades reflective not of their complicated lives, but of their growth and accomplishment and newly integrated skills. This is not nearly as easy as it sounds. 🙂 And I’m wondering how such a great class — great writing, wonderful community, thoughtful & inclusive conversation — turns in work missing huge chunks of what’s been in the course packet for (literally) months…?

As most teachers do, I was thinking about all this. My beginner’s heart, always in the backdrop of my thoughts, is trying to make a kind of Buddhist sense of this, a kind of teaching poetry, if that makes sense. And here’s what I finally arrive at, in class, as my students talk through me (one on one side, another on the other):

It is our ‘flaws’ that make us precious. A perfect person doesn’t exist. But if perfect people were real, who would get to decide? Would a colleague’s ‘perfect’ class include the two students who talked around me, in the desk between them? Would a ‘perfect’ class feature an anorexic, several almost-suicides, two fragile survivors, readers of fantasy and Jane  Austen, writers of poetry and sports articles and personal essays and research? How could I order up the infinitely wonderful assortment of personalities and vulnerabilities and lessons that circle me each Tuesday and  Thursday? I might have focused on portfolios w/ all the details meticulously organised, and missed the kaleidescope of what this class actually is. I might have ordered up one thing, missing out completely on what’s so right before me…

This is another of those ‘ordinary life is full of Buddhas’ moments. It couldn’t have happened while I sat on my too-little-used zafu (my knees hurt and I usually sit in a chair these days ~ when I sit…). It couldn’t have happened on the deck, watching the finches who haven’t left us mob the sunflower seed feeder. It couldn’t even have happened on the new bike I still have to pay absolute attention to when riding — I’m too busy balancing and shifting and repositioning myself.

It could only happen with this class, these people, that day. And it’s the best argument for both Buddhism’s ‘in the moment’ and teaching — and the intersection of both — I know of. Each day I face students — in any of the many teaching situations I inhabit, from 89-year-old Kathryn in intro to poetry for adults, to my 2-year-old grandnephew as I remind him he can’t throw blocks — I learn far more than I bring to the teaching dyad. For this I am profoundly grateful. I may  not even whine today about the lousy wages ~