Monday, August 18, 2008

ONE TEACHER'S ALPHABET: W is for Wilderness

Had I not seen the Sun
I could have borne the shade
But Light a newer Wilderness
My Wilderness has made –
-Emily Dickinson, poem #1249

As my years in the classroom have passed (42 of them now), it has become increasingly clear to me that teaching English is very much like traveling in a wilderness. In fact, the wilderness has grown vaster and more mystifying with each year. When I started back in 1966, my chosen profession seemed like a casual walk in an orderly park, but the truth has gradually been revealed. I now know that each day in the classroom is an expedition into unmapped territories. Of course, to reassure myself and provide a modicum of comfort in my daily work, I pretend that there are carefully laid out trails that will always lead me to my chosen destination. I use the “maps” provided by other teachers, textbooks, on-line discussion groups, etc., and I carefully design a lesson plan (another map) for each day’s classes, but in my heart I now realize that this is little more than a convenient ruse. The truth is that each story or poem we read, each essay we write, and each discussion we participate in, is a journey into (to use a title of a Jack London story) “a far country”. Who knows how far we will travel, what thoughts we will think, what truths will be revealed, or where we will eventually end up. What I hope for each morning, as I polish my plans before school, is that some “light” will shine during the day so that the scholars and I can discover, as Emily Dickinson phrased it, “a newer wilderness”. The truths we uncover during class will hopefully be new and enlightening, although I realize they will not make everything clear, not show us meticulously designed paths to some chosen ending. What they will show us, I always hope, is a bigger and broader wilderness, so that we can continue learning and growing.

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