“…Till the whole cave, so late a senseless mass,
Busies the eye with images and forms
-- Wordsworth, Book VIII, “The Prelude”
I sometimes feel like I’m entering a dark cave when I walk into my classroom. It’s not an especially dark room, but a strange kind of figurative darkness exists when I think of the inscrutability of both my students and the subject I teach. After all these years of teaching, teenagers are still as obscure to me as the darkest cave, and nothing, to me, seems more impenetrable than some of our greatest literature -- a Hopkins poem, for instance, or a story by Faulkner. In spite of all I’ve learned about teaching English over the years, I’m as much “in the dark” as I was when I started back in 1965, the only difference being that now I know I’m in the dark. It often reminds me of the above passage, in which Wordsworth speaks of “curious travelers” who enter a cave and, as their eyes slowly grow accustomed to the darkness, gradually see astonishing “images and forms” along the walls. As a teacher, I have definitely been a “curious traveler”, a wanderer in the wilds of English education, and much of my time, it seems, has been spent slowly adjusting to the darkness of my own ignorance. Even with the most carefully planned lesson, I almost always feel like I’m tiptoeing through a shadowy cave, watching and hoping for pathways and truths to slowly reveal themselves. It sometimes reminds me of a time near the start of my career when a veteran spelunker led my students and me into a cave in Missouri. When we entered a section of almost total darkness, we could see nothing at all, which is often the way I feel about ten minutes into a lesson. However, as we patiently waited for our eyes to adjust, we slowly began to see strange “images and forms” along the walls of the cave, fantastic shapes that had been hidden from us. “See?” our guide said. “All you have do is wait” – and I’ve tried to heed his advice all these years. Literature and teenagers are as murky as ever, but if I good-naturedly wait, wonders usually reveal themselves.
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