Friday, March 20, 2009

"Night Lights", oil on canvas, by Halima Washington

This afternoon I came across a quote (see below) by a favorite poet of mine, and it instantly started me thinking about my work as a middle school English teacher. So much of what William Stafford believes about writing poetry relates to what I believe about teaching. Like him, I feel I know next to nothing about “the important things happening 
around [me] or even within [me]”. Like him, I sense, more strongly each year, that there are “vast forces” at work in my classroom – forces which are both unintelligible and uncontrollable , and which extend infinitely beyond my scanty capacities as a teacher. When I started teaching decades ago, I had “proud assumptions” about my knowledge and abilities, but now I understand, all too well, my “serious limitations”. I’ve learned “to listen, give [myself] over”. I realize that, as a teacher of human beings, I am basically “traveling through the dark”. Each day in the classroom I listen, and look for the light.   


“We are only 
intermittently conscious enough to know the important things happening 
around us or even within us. Even a compass needle on this table would tell 
us something about the present that we don't know. There are vast forces 
that we rarely, if ever, perceive that control us. There is an awful lot that is 
getting by us. We already know that because we've invented instruments 
that tell us there are other things out there. My poems again and again are 
based upon the difference between our proud assumptions about self-control and our serious limitations. Now, the ultimate significant Other is God, or something like that. The 
speaker of many of the poems, then, or whatever the intelligence is that 
inhabits these poems, is a person who is in league with powers greater than 
human powers. These greater powers can't really be known. The Other is 
also the location of another perspective, as in that poem where the speaker 
seems to walk alongside a Cree warrior. We have to listen, give ourselves 
over. We have to settle for things, for our limited understanding of things. I 
think ‘Traveling Through the Dark’ is that kind of poem.”

-- Wiliam Stafford

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