Friday, February 19, 2010


“People who share a cell in the Bastille or are thrown together on an uninhabited island, if they do not immediately fall to fisticuffs, will find some possible ground of compromise. They will learn each other's ways and humours so as to know where they must go warily and where they may lean their whole weight.”
-- Robert Louis Stevenson, “Virginibus Puerisque”

Happily, my classroom is not much like a prison cell or an isolated island. There’s usually a fair amount of sparkle and merriment in my classes, and I don’t think my students feel much like inmates (even though the hard labor I force upon them may often seem punishing). There’s usually a spirit of comfortableness in my classes that would be hard to find on a deserted island. Yet, in a very real way, my students and I are strangers when we meet each day, strangers in the sense that what we show to each other, what we say and how we act, is just the slight surface of our vast and baffling lives. We actually know no more about each other than we know about the reaches of outer space. It’s as if we all stumble into Room 2 and greet each other afresh each day, washed up and stunned on an empty island. However, as Stevenson suggests, we usually “find some possible ground of compromise.” I’m a well-weathered senior citizen and they are unsullied, up-and-coming children, but we slowly “learn each other’s ways”, make concessions, and find the middle ground. I learn to “go warily” in certain areas with the students, and they learn, I’m sure when to tiptoe around me. Of course, I also steadily discover where and when I can “lean [my] whole weight” on the young people – let the influence of 68 years of learning and living gently but relentlessly urge them onward. We’re way different from each other – teenage children and a weathered old guy, restless kids and a stress-free granddad. We’re basically strangers sitting together in a small classroom each day, but we usually find Stevenson’s “possible ground” where sitting sometimes becomes sharing.

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