Sunday, January 24, 2010


In a famous passage from Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”, the poet writes of a boy who, when “the earliest stars” began to shine, “blew mimic hootings to the silent owls,/ That they might answer him”, and I must confess to often feeling like that lonely lad when I’m teaching 9th graders. In an odd way, my classroom often feels like friendless and rough backcountry, perhaps not too different from Wordsworth’s “cliffs/ And islands of Winander”, and there I am, day after day, sending out “hootings” to my students, hoping they will respond. Like the boy in the poem, I try different kinds of signals to the kids – hopefully a well-planned lesson, maybe a raised voice, perhaps stares, gimmicks, stunts, devices, attention-grabbers, even dead silence – anything to get even a faint response. It’s as if I’m high on a cliff, alone, with the students somewhere out in the pathless forest, and my voice goes forth like a solitary searcher: Is anyone out there? There are many days when my teenage “owls” stay as concealed and silent as Wordsworth’s sometimes were, but there are also days when they do respond – days when, for some mysterious reason, the call of my lesson plan stirs up untamed and enlightened replies. On those days, my classroom is a wilderness in a most beautiful way – a place where unspoiled adolescence and innocent old age team up to make some fairly raucous but graceful intellectual “music”. On those days, I sometimes read, in the evening with some Merlot accompaniment, the rest of the passage from “The Prelude”:

“… and they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call,--with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din!”

I wouldn’t want to have “quivering peals” in my classroom every day, just as I wouldn’t want to hike in a wilderness every day, but coming every now and then, those “jocund” days serve to remind me of the wonderful folly and wildness that seems to lie hidden in the heart of good teaching.

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