Sunday, December 06, 2009


“It was not till Tom had pushed off and they were on the wide water,—he face to face with Maggie,—that the full meaning of what had happened rushed upon his mind. It came with so overpowering a force,—it was such a new revelation to his spirit, of the depths in life that had lain beyond his vision, which he had fancied so keen and clear,—that he was unable to ask a question.”
-- from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (my italics)

This passage seemingly has nothing whatever to do with teaching English to teenagers, but still, I do see a connection to my daily work in the classroom. Suddenly, in the midst of a tragic flood, Tom Tulliver sees “the depths of life that had lain beyond his vision”, and it sometimes comes to me, quite unexpectedly, how deep and complex the life in my classroom is, and how far beyond my vision it lies. Tom had always been sure he knew the truth – what to do, how to do it, what to believe, how to live – and similarly, I’ve always been confident that I know what my students need and how it can best be provided to them. However, in the novel, Tom understands, out of the blue, how ignorant he has been and how much he has been missing, and there are times in the classroom when something renders me silent, something that whispers of profound developments and expansions within my students that I am utterly unaware of. Like Tom, and perhaps most of us, I live on the surface of life, where matters seem relatively unfussy and controllable. I plan lessons the way an engineer designs a machine, telling myself it’s just a matter of putting the right parts in the right place. I don’t actually believe this, but the way I operate in the classroom would suggest that, like Tom, I think achieving success is as easy as following a technician’s design. When he finds himself caught up in the roaring waters of the flood, the awareness comes to Tom that success comes not from adhering to designs, but from being totally open to what’s happening -- unlocked to all the greatness and impenetrability of what’s right in front of him. I need to keep Tom’s epiphany in mind as I work with my intricate, incomprehensible teenage scholars. These kids are more like boundless mazes than simple machines. I need to respectfully admit that my vision is not nearly as “keen and clear” as I used to believe – that the life in my little classroom is actually as deep and uncontainable as a flood.

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