Thursday, November 26, 2009


“… even the coming pain could not seem bitter,—she was ready to welcome it as a part of life, for life at this moment seemed a keen, vibrating consciousness poised above pleasure or pain. This one, this last night, she might expand unrestrainedly in the warmth of the present, without those chill, eating thoughts of the past and the future.”
-- from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (my italics)

    My teenage English scholars are probably too young to be able to do this, but my hope for them is that, like Maggie Tulliver, they can stay “poised above pleasure or pain” in my class (high grades or low grades, success or failure), and simply enjoy “the warmth of the present.” I have the distressing feeling, as I look out on the students during class, that few of them are enjoying the present. I fear they have already become members of the obsessed-with-the-past-and-future club that most adults belong to. I fear their minds are not on the matter at hand (which, like any present moment, glows with an inner light to those who are enough in attendance to notice it) but on the D or A that might await them on this week’s essay assignment. They are often as far away from my lesson as if they sat in a darkened room fretting about the darkness while a lowly but loyal lamp gave some light in the next room. My hope for them is that they can, at least occasionally, be struck with the understanding that pain and pleasure, success and failure, are eternal partners in the dance of life. C’s and A’s go unavoidably together like tails and heads. Trying to escape from pain or failure is like trying to run away from your feet. Perhaps now and then, my restive students can stop worrying about the past and future and just open their eyes and ears to the lesson of the day, be it about participles or a poem of Wordsworth. If they can simply be what they are – sensitive young people with always “vibrating” minds – they might be able to receive the blessings of English class, as modest and diverse as those blessings might be. Young as the students are, they might see that even failure has a flame of insight flickering inside it.

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